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 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 fellas who had deserted him at his most tragic hour, and ‘Peace be with you.’… ‘Oh, and have you fellas got something here that I could eat?’ —  with that all fear of re-crimination leaves the room and, I suppose, a feast begins.