Many books and articles have been written on the question whether Christian tragedy is possible. The following writer claims that it is not, that “Cristian” and “tagedy” are inherently contradictory. For another approach see Leland Ryken’s new book The Literature of the Bible (Zondervan). In a few pages he persuasively argues that tragedy and Christianity are compatible.
A vast gulf separates the popular usage and the academic usage of the term “tragedy.” It is used in a popular sense to refer to any sad or calamitous situation. When used in a scholarly context, it refers to a literary genre in which a protagonist engages in a morally significant struggle ending in ruin or disappointment. Here the question whether a Christian tragedy is possible has teased the minds of scholars for decades. Does this profound literary genre lie outside the Christian experience? Can Job, John the Baptist, Stephen, or Christ be considered a tragic hero?
Forty-five years ago I. A. Richards proposed that “tragedy is only possible to a mind which is for the moment agnostic or Manichean. The least touch of any theology which has a compensating Heaven to offer the tragic hero is fatal” (Principles of Literary Criticism.) Reinhold Niebuhr expressed a similar idea in Beyond Tragedy: “Christianity is a religion which transcends tragedy. Tears, with death, are swallowed up in victory.”
Before discussing Christian tragedy we must define “Christian literature.” By this term I mean literature in which the hero embodies values consistent with the life of Christ recorded in the Gospels. For example, I would not call Shakespeare’s tragedies Christian, though some scholars argue that Shakespeare was a Christian and that his audience thought in Christian terms.
The term “tragedy” is slippery and ubiquitous. It is most frequently defined within a historical period: Greek tragedy, medieval tragedy, Shakespearean tragedy, modern tragedy. Rather than working from a rigid definition, I would like to borrow two statements, one from Laurence Michel and the other from Richard Sewell, to provide a framework for examining the term “tragedy.” Michel states, “Tragedy is consummated when the dream of innocence is confronted by the fact of guilt, and acquiesces therein” (“The Possibility of a Christian Tragedy,” Thought, XXXI , 403–28). Sewell provides a scope for the term: “Tragedy makes certain distinguishable and characteristic affirmations, as well as denials, about (1) the cosmos and man’s relation to it; (2) the nature of the individual and his relation to himself; (3) the individual in society (“The Tragic Form,” Essays in Criticism, Vol. IV, 1954, pp. 345–58). The tragic hero is caught in a conflict that carries him inevitably from the quest to be free to collapse and failure.
What, then, are the qualities of tragedy that can be used to compare Christian man and tragic man? There are several that have been a consistent part of the genre from Sophocles to Arthur Miller.
DESTINY. Christian man is committed man. His world view is tempered by his belief that life here is temporal and life hereafter is eternal. Like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress he seeks the Celestial City, committed to an ultimate destiny with God.
Tragic man is uncommitted to any ultimate destiny. He has no assurance of an eternity shared with God but only an uncertain hope that a cosmic justice will prevail in the end. He may acknowledge a higher order that controls the universe (as in Sophocles’ tragedies), but he sees the relation between man and cosmos as uncertain, tenuous, vague.
PESSIMISM. Christian man is buoyed by an awareness of the superiority of the supernatural over the natural. His access to an omnipotent God provides him with a sense of confidence that the universe is an orderly and regulated creation under divine control. His security is found in the promise that “he who believes in him is not condemned” and shall enjoy eternal life.
Tragic man is pessimistic in seeing the overwhelming proportion of evil to good, but optimistic in hoping that justice will ultimately prevail, though man may be destroyed. Tragic man recognizes a futility in his defiance of the anti-forces; yet his only course is to struggle, knowing he is caught in a web. King Lear’s cry of frustration, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning,” is the cry of tragic man. Job too was a tragic figure until he finally acknowledged, “I know that thou canst do all things, and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted.” Then he became Christian man.
FREEDOM. Christian man is free. But his freedom is part of a paradox: only in bondage to Christ can he be truly free. He is free of guilt for the consequences of his sins, for guilt was absolved, once and for all, at the cross.
Tragic man hangs suspended between determinism and freedom, neither slave to fate nor a free man. He can blame neither himself nor God entirely; to fix the blame on either would relieve the tension and negate the tragedy.
SUFFERING. The Christian experiences suffering, not with a sense of futility and defeat, but with the assurance that God permits it and controls the outcome. First Peter 4 advises: “Rejoice in so far as you share Christ’s suffering,” while Romans 5 suggests that suffering produces qualities that draw the Christian closer to God. Like Job, the Christian may question the reason for his suffering, but he does not doubt the ultimate purpose of God.
Tragic man, proud of his humanity, cannot “curse God, and die,” as suggested by Job’s wife. His suffering requires him, like Prometheus, to protest against the forces that prevail against him. He stands alone, pitted against the cosmos; this protest is at the heart of the tragic struggle.
DEATH. The grim conclusions of dramatic tragedies from the ancient Oedipus the King to the modern Death of a Salesman stand in contrast to the biblical accounts of Job, John the Baptist, Stephen, and Christ. Christian man finds death not defeat but victory.
Although not all tragedies conclude with physical or violent death, all lack any suggestion of a regenerated life. A. C. Bradley suggests that the events in Shakespearean tragedies may become so transmuted that they cease to be strictly tragic. Still, the violent deaths of his tragedies, the grim endings of Greek tragedies, the futility and hopelessness of modern tragedies all have in common the pathos of a collapsing world. Macbeth offers little hope when he concludes that life is “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing.”
The Christian view of life, described in terms of literary genre, would seem to be most akin to comedy, most alien to tragedy. Sylvan Barnet says that “the Christian pattern moves from weakness to strength, from death to life, from innocence to bliss. Its form is therefore comic, and Dante writes a Commedia because he knows that a tragedy begins quietly but ends in horror, while a comedy begins harshly but concludes happily” (“Some Limitations of a Christian Approach to Shakespeare,” English Literary History Journal, XXII , 81–92). To refer to the misfortunes of a Christian as “tragedy” is to ignore the resurrection of Christ. For the Christian, the terms “Christian” and “tragedy” remain forever irreconcilable.
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