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Literary Genius in the Story of Jesus

“Behold, something greater than Jonah is here. . . . Behold, something greater than Solomon is here” (Matt. 12:41–42). 

For Jesus’s audience, and for us too, Jonah and Solomon exist within story. These men are inseparable from their goals, their conflicts, and their stories’ resolution. For Jesus to say something greater than these men has arrived is also to say a story greater than theirs has arrived, too. Reminding us of the man who was in a fish for three days, and the man whose wisdom led him to suggest cutting a baby in half (1 Kings 3:16–28), Jesus claims his story will be better!

Jesus’s story is the greatest ever told primarily because it has eternal consequences for our real lives: his life, death, and resurrection brought eternal redemption for those who believe in him (John 3:16). Everyone’s story will ultimately be subjected to Christ’s story.

Everyone’s story will ultimately be subjected to Christ’s story.

Jesus’s story is also a literary masterpiece, greater than any other. To show this, I’ll highlight two pairs of literary tension and show how Christ’s story balances those tensions greater than other any other story.

1. Tragedy vs. Comedy

By “tragedy,” we generally mean “serious” and “somber.” One of the key indicators of a tragedy is the death of a main character at the story’s climax.

By “comedy,” we generally mean “lighthearted” and “trivial.” More than humor, the key indicator of a comedy is a happy, redemptive ending—usually a wedding. 

One literary work that serves as an example of this literary tension is Romeo and Juliet. The set-up makes readers believe the play is a comedy, as Romeo hopes to marry Juliet. It appears as if their marriage will bring about a great reconciliation between the Montagues and the Capulets. But the “star-crossed lovers” are subject to a cruel fate. One thing leads to another and Romeo kills himself, believing Juliet is dead. Juliet then kills herself, finding Romeo actually dead. Expectations are shattered. The comic becomes the tragic. All hope seemed lost.

But there is some beauty left. Their deaths bring peace to the warring families. The deaths of Romeo and Juliet brought reconciliation—what a beautiful trope! (The two lovers are still dead, however, and so the tragic outweighs the comic.)

There is no more potent image in all of literature than that of our Savior hanging from the cross—his death meant life for us.

But there’s a story greater than Romeo and Juliet. Jesus’s story also subverts expectations—the Savior of the world hanging from a cross, his disciples fleeing and denying him, the Roman soldiers mocking him. All hope seemed lost. 

But there was great beauty, even in those dark moments. Jesus’s death paid for our sins. His death meant reconciliation with God—ending a strife that stretched back to Eden. There is no more potent image in all of literature than our Savior hanging from the cross—his death meant life for us. 

But there’s more to Christ’s story: he rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and now sits at God’s right hand. We’re living in that story—anxious for the final scene—waiting for the wedding that shall unite us to him forever (Rev. 19:6–10). The comic outweighs the tragic!

2. High vs. Low Style 

High style (sublimity) is to tragedy as low style (humility) is to comedy. These are synonyms, and I list them as a separate literary tension to highlight another artistic accomplishment in Jesus’s story, unparalleled in all of literature. 

High style has historically been given the most critical attention—even now the literary world is separated into two classes: literary fiction (associated with high style) and genre fiction (associated with low style). Some of the best stories became such by transcending these categories, finding a way to use both styles at once. 

One such classic work is William Wordsworth’s (1770–1850) The Prelude—an autobiographical, epic, though not an external adventure like The Odyssey, instead, one of internal adventure. This poem’s form was in the highest style possible at the time: blank verse. But the language it used was the lowest style possible: everyday speech. 

Marcel Proust (1871–1922) picked up on this thread. He, too, wrote about the trivialities of day-to-day life (low style) in an autobiographical novel (high form). Proust is famous for writing in an incredibly high style—flowery prose with complex, long-winded sentences. His achievement was considered unmatched—until recently.

Karl Ove Knausgård (1968–) entered into this rich tradition that transcended the divide between high and low style with the release of his six-volume autobiographical novel, heralded as “perhaps the most significant literary enterprise of our time.” His work differs from Proust’s in that he writes in a low style. His sentences are short and punchy, he writes with crudeness and vulgarity, and at times it reads like a tell-all book, rather than a literary masterpiece. 

And yet Knausgård’s reflections on power, love, writing, memory, and family are among the greatest and most poignant in all of literary history. And so his work, in my opinion, stands tall within this literary tradition because it uses a low style to accomplish a high purpose—a much harder feat than using a high style to accomplish a low purpose. 

Even non-believers can see Jesus’s story is unparalleled in how it transcends the literary divide between high and low style—it’s far greater than the richest literary tradition man has created.

But there’s a story greater than Knausgård’s. Listen to what the 20th-century literary scholar Erich Auerbach, who wasn’t a self-professed Christian, said about Jesus’s story in his famous work Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature:

The most moving account of all [in Scripture] was the Passion. That the King of Kings was treated as a low criminal, that he was mocked, spat upon, whipped, and nailed to the cross—that story no sooner comes to dominate the consciousness of the people than it completely destroys the aesthetics of the separation of styles; it engenders a new elevated style which does not scorn every day life. . . . Or . . . a low style . . . which now reaches out far beyond its original domain, and encroaches upon the deepest and the highest, the sublime and the eternal. (72)

Even non-believers see that Jesus’s story masterfully transcends the literary divide between high and low style. While other great stories shine bright like the sun, Jesus’s story is “a light from heaven, brighter than the sun” (Acts 26:13).

So, Christian, read his story—over and over again. But more than this, believe in him. Worship him, and enjoy him forever!

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