The Gospel is Not a Tragedy

It has been said that many regular preachers of the word are able to communicate with feeling and gusto on Good Friday, but would give their eye teeth to get out of having to preach on Easter Sunday. What can we say that will be any different to what was said last year, or the year before. The resurrection looks suspiciously like a deus ex machina. In the Greek plays, sometimes a ‘god’ or a magical being would come helicoptering down into the stage of a tragedy to redeem it. Where the play-wright had written himself into a corner, this mechanism enabled him to suddenly give the drama a happy, if not quite believable ending. I believed in the resurrection, and yet, when it came to preaching it well, I admit I did struggle… until discovering a fresh and decidedly un-tragic richness in the resurrection stories of the New Testament.

One thing we may have lost as theological formation moved from the centre of literary studies is the ready availability of literary-critical approaches to the New Testament. The title of this post might seem at first to be a statement of something quite innocuous and rather obvious. Of course the gospel is not a tragedy, we might say. There’s the joy of Easter Sunday, right?… and yet, a literary-critical analysis of tragedy when set alongside many contemporary renditions of ‘the gospel’ reveals some unsettling similarities.

“Wherever there is the hero, there tragedy is lurking” — so Nietzsche perspicaciously intones. In narratological terms every tragedy contains tragic denouement; the gospel has its own tragic sense of denouement. Diverse Christological writers, including Jon Sobrino, recognise this immediately. There is, of course, a virtual inevitability; a cross on the horizon for everyone who dares to love and renounces vengeance. The problem with a gospel that focuses on this cross and its inevitability; with preaching that relies too heavily on tapping empathic feeling in human suffering, is that in this the resurrection may be reduced to a deus ex machina  — God in Jesus is triumphant over suffering and injustice. See — he raises his suffering servant from the dead. This is undoubtedly true, but there is more going on.

There is more in the resurrection stories than just Christus Victor —  Jesus does not behave like a person recently victimised. He is variously mistaken for a ‘gardener’, a ‘barbeque-er of fish’, a fellow traveller who breaks bread — never for a hero, as we might expect. There is nothing in the descriptions of the risen Lord which looks anything like the behaviour of the serious and grave protagonist who prevails. These want to be ‘paid’ somehow for what they have suffered, and Jesus does not seem interested in any kind of payment.

‘Don’t be afraid’, he says to his disciples who had deserted him at his most tragic hour, and ‘Peace be with you.’… ‘Oh, and have you got something here that I could eat?’ —  with that all fear of re-crimination leaves the room and, I suppose, a feast begins.

David McDougall

(David is a parish priest in the Diocese of Adelaide. He was recently commissioned as the Rector of the Parish of Glen Osmond, after a number of years in the Diocese of Willochra. He is  undertaking doctoral studies at St Barnabas College. )

Tags: Nietzsche | resurrection |

One thought on “The Gospel is Not a Tragedy”

  1. Resurrection is the beginning of the new creation. But the new creation is not yet fully born (Romans 8:18-23) Jesus came to bind up the broken hearted.

    But how this new creation can come about is a mystery. The old creation is wonderful, but in being given its freedom, includes suffering and cruelty, not all of it the direct result of human sin, and is dependent on death for its functioning.

    I ahve been asked to contribute (and have) by CBM to help prevent river blindness, which is surely part of Christ’s work, but the parasite that causes the blindness is part of creation, and presumably part of the resurrection when all things will be restored.

    Jesus can triumph without any need for retribution.

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