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The Story Continues (When He Comes 1)

Mark Twain has a fabulous short story about a young woman raised as a boy since birth. Her name is Conrad and her father is a wealthy duke, who decided to keep her true gender a secret so that she could inherit his duchy when he died. The one thing she must never do is sit on the duke’s throne, which is forbidden to any woman. Otherwise, she will be killed. (Can you see where this is going?)

I won’t go into the details, but of course Conrad ends up sitting on the ducal throne and gets caught in a seemingly impossible situation. Her only options are to reveal that she’s a woman and be executed for sitting on the ducal throne, or keep that secret, admit instead that she fathered an illegitimate child, and be executed as an adulterer. So, she gets to pick: execution or execution. Touch choice.

And, that’s where the story ends.

As Mark Twain himself explains,

The remainder of this thrilling and eventful story will NOT be found in this or any other publication, either now or at any future time.

The truth is, I have got my hero (or heroine) into such a particular close place, that I do not see how I am ever going to get him (or her) out of it again—and therefore I will wash my hands of the whole business and leave that person to get out the best way that offers-or else stay there. I thought it was going to be easy enough to straighten out that little difficulty, but it looks different now.

So, the author has gotten stuck. And, thus the story ends.

I always feel the same way when I reach this part of the Gospel story. Surely it has to end here. God’s people have rebelled and rejected him, pursuing idolatry and immorality. They are dead. Despite God’s continued faithfulness to them through it all, they are still lost. Kings, prophets, priests, judges— nothing seems to help. Finally, God himself leaves. His glory departs from the temple, from the land, from his people.

If I’m the one writing this story, now I’m stuck. How in the world do you find a satisfying conclusion to all of this? Like Twain, I’d wash my hands of the whole business.

But, the story continues.

That statement all by itself is an expression of grace. The sheer fact that the story does not end here, but continues on into the future of God’s perfect plan, demonstrates the incomprehensible mercy, patience, and faithfulness of a God who will not allow us to mess up his amazing purposes for his people and his creation.

This Author knows exactly how his story is going to end. It’s rather hard to see at this point, but he still assures us that he’s in control and that he has not given up.

So, against all logic and all expectation, the story continues…because God promised that it would.

Mark Twain and Psalm 73 on the absurdity of injustice

Mark Twain has to be one of my favorite short story authors. Recently, I was struck by his The Story of the Bad Little Boy, in which Twain wrestles with the perennial question of “Why do good things happen to bad people?” Here’s how he describes Jim’s life.

Once there was a bad little boy whose name was Jim – though, if you will notice, you will find that bad little boys are nearly always called James in your Sunday-school books. It was strange, but still it was true that this one was called Jim….

Once this little bad boy stole the key of the pantry, and slipped in there and helped himself to some jam, and filled up the vessel with tar, so that his mother would never know the difference; but all at once a terrible feeling didn’t come over him, and something didn’t seem to whisper to him, “Is it right to disobey my mother? Isn’t it sinful to do this? Where do bad little boys go who gobble up their good kind mother’s jam?” and then he didn’t kneel down all alone and promise never to be wicked any more, and rise up with a light, happy heart, and go and tell his mother all about it, and beg her forgiveness, and be blessed by her with tears of pride and thankfulness in her eyes. No; that is the way with all other bad boys in the books; but it happened otherwise with this Jim, strangely enough. He ate that jam, and said it was bully, in his sinful, vulgar way; and he put in the tar, and said that was bully also, and laughed…. Everything about this boy was curious – everything turned out differently with him from the way it does to the bad James in the books.

Once he climbed up in Farmer Acorn’s apple-tree to steal apples, and the limb didn’t break, and he didn’t fall and break his arm, and get torn by the farmer’s great dog, and then languish on a sick bed for weeks, and repent and become good. Oh! no; he stole as many apples as he wanted and came down all right; and he was all ready for the dog too, and knocked him endways with a brick when he came to tear him….Nothing like it in any of the Sunday-school books….

But the strangest thing that ever happened to Jim was the time he went boating on Sunday, and didn’t get drowned, and that other time that he got caught out in the storm when he was fishing on Sunday, and didn’t get struck by lightning….How this Jim ever escaped is a mystery to me….

In many ways, it’s the same question that we find in Psalm 73.

Surely God is good to Israel,
to those who are pure in heart.

But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;
I had nearly lost my foothold.

For I envied the arrogant
when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. (vv. 1-3)

If the world is governed by a good and just God, why are we surrounded by such injustice? Why do the wicked prosper and the righteous suffer? The psalmist never offers a definitive answer. Instead, he simply turns his eyes toward heaven in worship.

When I tried to understand all this,
it was oppressive to me

till I entered the sanctuary of God;
then I understood their final destiny. (vv. 16-17)

Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever. (vv. 24-25)

Mark Twain takes a very different approach when he concludes his story.

And he grew up and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalist wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legislature.

Temporally speaking, I don’t think Mark Twain’s position is any different than that of the psalmist. Wicked people do in fact prosper and justice often reigns triumphant in the world. But, what Twain’s story lacks, and what the psalmist offers, is the brazen declaration of hope, the bold confidence in God’s ultimate sovereignty, the vision to gaze beyond the injustice and see the Kingdom of God beyond. Twain’s power as a writer lay in his ability to make us see the absurdities of the now, but seeing the now is not always the best training for seeing what will be. The psalmist shows us a different path – one that refuses to turn away from seeing the world in all of its devastating depravity, rejects facile and moralistic explanations of injustice, resists the ineluctable draw of nihilism, and reaches out to a greater, deeper, more glorious vision of then – ephemeral, elusive, exasperating…the eschaton.

Flotsam and Jetsam (5/24)

  • I meant to post this one yesterday, but I forgot. Scot McKnight reviews N.T. Wright’s After You Believe at Books and Culture.
  • Scotteriology has a brief post on the importance and usefulness of the documentary hypothesis
  • If you’re not sure what all the commotion is about the new social studies curriculum just approved by the Texas State Board of Education, here is a nice article summarizing the issues.
  • Scot McKnight has posted some interesting facts about megachurches, suggesting that they’re not as bad as we think (or, at least, they’re not worse than really small churches).
  • Apparently the long awaited (100 years) autobiography of Mark Twain is finally going to be released. Sounds like it will be fascinating reading. (HT First Thoughts)
  • If you have any interest in higher education, one of the hot issues today is what schools of the future will do with the library holdings. The Boston Glob has an interesting piece today on how Harvard is responding with its library.
  • I mentioned last week that the “Get a Mac” ad campaign had been canceled. Well, apparently there’s actually a tribute video now.