There has been an emphasis in pop culture over the last decade or so on The Narrative Twist.
Suddenly, not being able to see what’s coming has become one of the defining criteria for “good” TV and movies. The more a writer or an artist can confuse or throw off the fanbase, the more they can inspire a thousand online debates and charts and conspiracy theories, the more critically acclaimed a show seems to be.
By contrast, anything “predictable” is dismissed as trite and boring.
I’ll acknowledge that subverting the audience’s expectations can be a masterful writer’s trick. To lull your reader into thinking a setting is comfortable and safe, only to make them realize it wasn’t, to coax them into believing Character A is noble when he’s the most manipulative of all—this can be good stuff. But I really resist the idea that this is the only or the best way to write, or that “seeing what’s coming” is always a terrible thing.
After all, if surprise is critical, why bother rereading books or watching movies at all?
Anticipation, that’s why. Knowing what’s coming and wanting it anyway. I have watched the Lord of the Rings trilogy a truly embarrassing amount of times. Believe me when I say there is nothing in that movie I do not see coming. And yet—and yet—at certain critical points, when the beacons of Gondor is lit or Gandalf returns or the elves do something cool or Sauron is finally defeated—I thrill to the moment not because I don’t expect it, but because I do.
I know exactly what my favorite scone tastes like, but I still order it every time.
I know exactly who the hero of the story will be, but I want to know how she gets there.
I know how the couple falls in love, but I still want to see the moments they share.
I know every joke in every Golden Girls episode, but I still laugh.
I have wondered what it is, during times of difficulty, that turns me to particular media. When my mother was at her most ill and when she died I stopped reading everything I had been reading up until that point. I turned to the Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings, to my old Stephen Lawhead books, to fantasy classics I have loved to the points of ruined covers and stained pages.
Somewhere deep inside, I wanted to be reminded of what is good and true – what something in my heart already knew.
We already live in a world that is full of—frankly unpleasant—surprises. Sickness and death. Personal betrayals. Pandemics. Warmongering. Our lives spilled into a novel, I suppose, would make must-see reading: because who could have foreseen a COVID pandemic, or the conflict between Russia and Ukraine, or the small personal tragedies we each bear every day?
In all of this, Easter can seem so familiar.
Too familiar. We know what’s coming. Every Christian knows all the imagery: the whip, the cross, the thorns, the empty tomb. We know what our churches and chapels will look like. We know that there will probably be a few clips from The Passion or The Chosen or some multimedia service. We know the readings. We know the responses.
It can lull us, truly. It can lead us to view the Cross itself as a trite thing, as predictable.
My church used to hold a Good Friday service that was a full multi-media extravaganza: Scripture, readings, music. It was emotional, evocative, meant for everyone to leave in tears. Since the pandemic, however, they’ve turned to the Tenebrae service. As the Scripture reading goes on, the lights are extinguished. And at the end of the service, we sit in total darkness.
The Tenebrae is a solemn thing, dark and heavy. It is impossible to leave smiling. But as I sit there in the dark, I think about how critical it is to our endurance that we know what’s coming. How much it matters that we know the rest of the story. Who can bear up under such darkness otherwise?
As Easter approaches, even if it feels familiar, even if it is the same as it is every year, take a moment of quiet relief that you know the rest of the story, how it will end—or rather, how it will continue, forever. It is only in this blessed confidence that we can endure what we don’t know and don’t understand. Only in this truth that the struggle forward becomes worthwhile.