On Friday night (I would say ‘Good Friday’ but, as First Things’ triumphalist Protestant—to use Rusty Reno’s term for me—I will keep to strictly Puritan-approved secular nomenclature), I had the privilege of being present at a superb performance of Haydn’s Seven Last Words of Christ. I also had the pleasure of being one of a number who offered some brief reflections between sonatas on the meaning of the biblical texts upon which the music is based. The lady who organized the concert—and who played the cello with rare skill—also asked me to conclude by going beyond the cross to the empty tomb. This I did, in an abbreviated form of what follows:
In his book on Wagner’s opera, Tristan und Isolde, English philosopher Roger Scruton comments that Christianity can produce no really tragic art form because it always offers the resurrection as the solution to life’s darkness. The nearest it comes, he says, is Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion because it ends with Christ’s death and ignores the resurrection.
Scruton is not unique in questioning the possibility of Christian tragedy. I. A. Richards and George Steiner also made much the same point. And Miguel De Unamuno, while trying to maintain a religious sensibility in his thinking about tragedy rather gives the game away when he argues for Don Quixote as the quintessential tragic figure. Quixote is apparently the one to which those in rebellion against the existential desert of modernity should look for paradigmatic inspiration. Yet the man from La Mancha is not so much defiantly tragic as attractively absurd and this distinction between tragedy and absurdity is critical. It is the reason why Pinter’s The Birthday Party is not the same as Sophocles’ Philoctetes.
Nevertheless, I have some sympathy in practice with the point that resurrection can preempt the tragic. For example, the resurrection is often trotted out in popular Christian piety as a shortcut to happiness and a trite solution to life’s problems, bypassing the valley of the shadow of death and the complexity of living in the real world. As I noted a few years ago in First Things, the lack of a sense of the tragic in Christian worship indicates a lack of biblical balance in the liturgies of today’s services. Those who disagreed and thought me too much of a pessimist pointed to the empty tomb as evidence. “Trueman neglects the resurrection” was the typical response of such.
While acknowledging the joyful hope of the resurrection, I still do not think that it necessarily negates tragedy. That depends upon a truncated definition of the tragic which excludes the reality of eternal hope. In fact, even by the canons of its classical form, life beyond death can be essential to the dramatic action. Antigone’s death is tragic precisely because she understands there is an afterlife and she would rather face the departed with a clean conscience than accede to Creon’s demands. Death is inevitable so it must be embraced on conditions which will make the afterlife bearable. Were her consciousness of the afterlife not so acute, did she not consider it real, there would be no tragic tension. She could obey Creon and sleep well at night, as her sister Ismene initially suggests.
In fact, pace Scruton, Richards, Steiner et al., I would therefore argue the opposite: that the need for Christ’s death and resurrection as the answer to humanity’s problem—its rebellion against God and its plunging of itself into death rather than choosing life—is precisely what brings out the full depth of the human tragedy and thus the tragic nature of the Incarnation. That only God, taking flesh, can solve the problem, demonstrates just how deep that problem is. No mere creature could do it. Only God himself, entering time and clothing himself with human flesh, is powerful enough to solve the tragedy of a humanity in rebellion against its creator. And Christ’s death makes no sense without the resurrection, for had his death been the last word, then death would have won and Christ’s life, far from being tragic, would merely have been an heroic but ultimately absurd gesture.
Haydn’s piece ends, of course, on Good Friday, where Bach’s masterpiece also ended. Yet Good Friday is followed by Easter Sunday. Indeed, Good Friday only makes sense in light of Easter Sunday and so there is an argument for saying that both these masterpieces, while artistically whole and coherent on their own terms are theologically incomplete. Good Friday is only really tragic in light of Easter Sunday, otherwise it is simply absurd. Perhaps, therefore, the only really true tragedy is Christian tragedy—a tragedy which paradoxically rests upon hope.
Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.