NOT THE WAY IT’S SUPPOSED TO BE
It is common for people to say that life isn’t like the movies. Love stories don’t usually end happy ever after, crime often goes unpunished, the underdog regularly gets pummeled. Mike Cosper adds, “Nerds seldom take off their glasses to reveal a heartthrob, and as Indiana Jones once said, ‘X never, ever marks the spot.’” Life tends to not be as reliable as the stories that we tell. We wish the world worked in this way. We want the good guy to win and the couple to drive off into the sunset. We want to hold on to the idea that if we do enough good we will earn God’s favor, and life will go according to plan. But the fall and fallenness are realities that cannot be ignored.
Sin’s presence is visible in every aspect of life. It infects our work, our relationships, and our overall well-being. “We often see sin’s consequences in random, hard-to-trace, sometimes mind-bogglingly frustrating ways.” “There is pain inside of us and all around us. It’s everywhere. And we need to be able to make sense of it.” Many of the stories that our culture tells play up this theme.
One example can be seen in the early 90’s film Grand Canyon. Cornelius Plantinga Jr. describes a powerful scene from the movie in his fantastic book Not the Way It’s Supposed To Be. After watching a Laker’s game at the Staples Center, we follow an attorney as he gets out of the stadium. Being that he is in LA he gets stuck in a traffic jam. He attempts to bypass it, but the alternate route takes him deep into a neighborhood he has no business being in. Then comes the predictable scenario: his expensive car stalls and he is stuck. He manages to call a tow truck, but before it arrives, five ‘young street toughs’ (Plantinga’s description there) surround him and threaten to injure him. Then, just in time, the tow truck driver shows up (played by Danny Glover). He proceeds to ignore the armed men threatening the attorney and hooks the disabled car up to his truck. The young men try to stop him, so the driver takes the leader of the group aside and attempts a five-sentence introduction to metaphysics. He says:
“Man, the world ain’t supposed to work like this. Maybe you don’t know that, but this ain’t the way it’s supposed to be. I’m supposed to be able to do my job without askin’ you if I can. And that dude is supposed to be able to wait with his car without you rippin’ him off. Everything’s supposed to be different than what it is here.”
That sense of frustration with the way things are is a common theme in many of our narratives.There is a desire to attain a certain something that always seems to allude. Our efforts never quite enough. David Zahl comments: "Listen carefully and you’ll hear that word enough everywhere… We believe instinctively that, were we to reach some benchmark in our minds, then value, vindication, and love would be ours... But here’s the wrinkle… Our lives attest that the threshold does not exist, at least not where fallible and finite human beings are concerned.” In an article forthe New Yorker entitled “Improving Ourselves to Death,” the writer Will Storr (author of Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us) is quoted as saying: “People are suffering and dying under the torture of the fantasy self they’re failing to become.”
VANITY OF VANITIES
A common response the heartache and frustration that go along with life in a fallen world is to give up altogether. These words from The Preacher have never felt more relevant:
2 Vanity of vanities, says the Preacher,
vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
3 What does man gain by all the toil
at which he toils under the sun?
4 A generation goes, and a generation comes,
but the earth remains forever.
8 All things are full of weariness;
a man cannot utter it;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
nor the ear filled with hearing.
9 What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
(Ecclesiastes 1:2–4, 8–9)
The author of Ecclesiastes is honest about the reality that life is often frustrating and that it can pointless, despite our best efforts. “Feasts fill us temporarily. Success is short-lived. We build empires and then watch someone else take them over. Our sexual appetites can be fulfilled only temporarily. We are insatiable.” This experience isn’t limited to believers; it is felt by all people in their ordinary lives. It is felt as people encounter bigger societal issues like injustice in the marketplace and broken political systems, as well as the brutal monotony of the workaday world as we experience these effects of the fall: By the sweat of your face you shall eat bread, till you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Genesis 3:19).
The tedium and toil of everyday life is powerfully dealt with in Herman Melville’s short story Bartleby, published first in 1853. Bartleby tells the story of an office clerk hired by a law firm. They office is horribly dysfunctional. To begin with, the office has two employees (“scriveners,” whose job is to copy legal documents by hand). They can each only work half a day, one because he suffers from an irritable stomach, and the other because he’s a drunk. Bartleby is hired to help with the work, and hopefully offset the damage done by the other two employees. But soon after coming on, he begins to answer every request with the phrase, “I would prefer not to.”
Eventually, Bartleby stops working altogether, but he refuses to leave the office. He ends up sleeping in a corner, continuing to answer every request with “I would prefer not to.” The lawyer, fed up with Bartleby’s depression, decides to move out of the office. Soon thereafter, new tenants move in, but Bartleby is still there. He is eventually removed and dragged off to a prison called the Tombs. Once there, the lawyer tries to see to it that Bartelby is cared for, but the depressed scrivner decides that he would prefer not to eat until he dies of starvation.
Bartelby’s story is portrayed in one way or another in many of our culture’s narratives. Mike Cosper points out, “We find it in early scenes of the Coen brothers’ The Hudsucker Proxy, and it inspired Stephen King’s Bag of Bones. Bartleby is the name of one of the despairing angels in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, who convinced the Angel of Death to quit his job one day.” According to Copser, however, one of the clearest examples is Mike Judge’s movie Office Space.
Office Space tells the story of Peter Gibbons (played by Ron Livingston) who hates his job. To him it feels meaningless and soul-sucking. So one day, he decides to stop going. He doesn’t quit, instead he shows up occasionaly to do things like dismantle his cubicle or clean a bass on his desktop. He is happy to continue collecting a paycheck, he just decides that he isn’t going to do any more work. Ironically, Peter’s refusal to do his job results in a promotion and a raise, only serving to further highlight the absurdity and pointlessness of work under the curse.
Accordign to Cosper, these stories all ask the same questions: Why? What’s the point? Why show up? And they provide various answers. “Office Space ends with an odd sort of homage to community and love. The American version of The Office (which explored similar themes) ends in a similar way. The Hudsucker Proxy offers hope in the way of love, creativity, and imagination.”
THE END OF THE MATTER
The themes of frustration and pointlessness are not foreign to the biblical writers. Quoted above are powerful and raw words from Ecclesiastes that get to the heart of this problem. So what is the actual answer? What is the end of the matter? This is how the book of Ecclesiastes ends: “13 The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. 14 For God will bring every deed into judgment, with every secret thing, whether good or evil” (Ecclesiastes 12:13–14).
Because of the fall, our work has been turned in to toil, relationships are hard, and creation itself has been subjected to futility (see also Romans 8:20). Paul describes creation as “groaning… in the pains of childbirth until now” (Romans 8:22). The good news of the gospel is that this that life does have direction and purpose, for we have been saved in hope (Romans 8:24). Christ has come and he will make his blessings flow “far as the curse if found.” And there will come a day when he will make all things new (Revelation 21:5) and “everything sad is going to come untrue.”
 Mike Cosper, The Stories We Tell: How TV and Movies Long for and Echo the Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), Kindle, Chapter 6.
 Justin Buzzard, The Big Story: How the Bible Makes Sense out of Life (Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2013), 63.
 Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1999), 7.
 David Zahl, Seculosity: How Career, Parenting, Technology, Food, Politics, and Romance Became Our New Religion and What to Do About It (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2019), Kindle, Introduction.
 Alexandra Schwartz, “Improving Ourselves to Death,” The New Yorker (The New Yorker, July 9, 2019), https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2018/01/15/improving-ourselves-to-death.
 Cosper, The Stories We Tell, Kindle, Chapter 6.
 Herman Melville, Bartleby (London, UK: Minerva Publishing, 2018), 9.
 Cosper, The Stories We Tell, Kindle, Chapter 6.
 Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World,”, http://www.lutheran-hymnal.com/lyrics/lw053.htm.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Return of the King (New York, NY: Ballentine Books, 2012), 246.