IVP - Strangely Dim - The Final Word

May 26, 2005

The Final Word

by David A. Zimmerman

I've never thought of myself as pollyanic or even optimistic. I think it's fair to say that I'm more like Eeyore than Tigger. As my sainted daddy always says, "An optimist can never be pleasantly surprised."

Nevertheless, I don't think I'm alone in wanting a happy ending. You invest your time in a book or a film or a conversation, and you expect that you'll walk away from such an encounter with a positive feeling toward it. The hero will ride off into the sunset with newfound love riding alongside. The city will be at rest, now safe from its most recent and all future threats. Your friend will wrap things up with a "Nice talking with you. See you real soon."

Even confessional conversations and all-too-real documentaries and nonfiction treatises end best when ended on a hopeful note: "Americans are too fat . . . Here are some suggestions for how we can all lose some weight." "Bless me father for I have sinned . . . Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit."

So imagine my disappointment when I turned today to the last page of a four-hundred page tome about the role of myth in culture and read eagerly to the final word: "despair."

Despair?!? Are you kidding me?!? What kind of ending is that?!? There's not even nobility tucked into the word despair. You can read A Tale of Two Cities, get to the last page to witness an execution and still walk away hopeful, even inspired:

"It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known."
The End

But walk away with the sound of "despair" still ringing in your ears, and whatever you hear next will carry its taint.

Giving despair the final word doesn't just say something about a book or a movie or a relationship, it says something about our world. You've summed up existence in seven letters; you've given the worst benediction ever. The end of one thing is of course the beginning of the next, so to end so hopelessly is to infect your future with hopelessness.

Some assign that kind of hopelessness to death: the ultimate last word. In death we rot, we fade away; all that we've spent ourselves on over the course of our life comes to nothing. Death as the last word is a terribly unhappy ending, particularly because it wasn't intended from the beginning of the story. Death entered the world as a plot point with the rebellion of humanity against its creator, and now death comes to all as we reap what we have sown.

But death has ceased to be the final word in Christian theology. Resurrection serves as an epilogue to death; in rising from death Jesus defeats it and removes its sting. Death is no longer an end but a beginning. Our heroes live happily ever after.

There. I feel better. Despair shouldn't be allowed to get the final word, and we are good editors who steer the storytellers among us toward a more hopeful finish.

If we can't bring ourselves to end on a hopeful note, maybe it's enough to leave our story unfinished, and wait for the climax to be revealed to us. The Bible, of all things, ends on such a note of anticipation, after a thousand pages of staring despair square in the face and daring to hope:

Amen. Come Lord Jesus.
The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God's people. Amen.

Now that's a good book. I know, cheesy. But I feel better.

Posted by Dave Zimmerman at May 26, 2005 8:37 AM Bookmark and Share


i'll agree up to a point: cheesy happy endings should've ended badly :)

Comment by: rick at May 26, 2005 2:11 PM

I'll grant you that, Rick. I may have overcompensated based on my sense of betrayal reading the book today. I can think of some "happy endings" that made me angry or irritated or even ill. There's a scene in "Mean Girls" toward the end where a girl gets run over by a bus, which I found a pretty satisfying contrast to the sappy smoochiness that characterizes a lot of filmwork.

But then again, I have issues.

Comment by: Dave at May 26, 2005 2:22 PM

What? You're a closet Mean Girls fan? Dave, all the machismo I associated with you in that Zimmer-Man outfit has just been run over by a bus.

Comment by: Peter at June 3, 2005 11:11 AM

First off, thanks for outing me about the Zimmer-man outfit. There are a few people left in my universe who haven't had their opinion of me tainted by the Zimmer-man movie. Second, Mean Girls rocks and you know it.


Comment by: Dave at June 3, 2005 11:20 AM

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Behind the Strangeness

Lisa Rieck is a reader and writer who likes to discuss good ideas over hot drinks and gets inspired by the sky. She takes in all kinds of good ideas as a proofreader for InterVarsity Press.

Rebecca Larson is a writer/designer/creative type who has infiltrated IVP's web department, where she writes and edits online content. She enjoys a good pun and loves the smell of freshly printed books.

David A. Zimmerman is an editor for Likewise Books and a columnist for Burnside Writers Collective. He's written three books, most recently The Parable of the Unexpected Guest. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/unexpguest. Find his personal blog at loud-time.com.

Suanne Camfield is a publicist for InterVarsity Press and a freelance writer. She floats ungracefully between work, parenting and writing, and (much to her dismay) finds it impossible to read on a treadmill. She is a member of the Redbud Writers Guild and blogs at The Rough Cut.

Likewise Books from InterVarsity Press explore a thoughtful, active faith lived out in real time in the midst of an emerging culture.

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