[EDITOR’S NOTE: As the curtain comes down on our ‘Christian Doctrine and the Arts’ series, Benjamin Holsteen returns to theodramatic exploration of Christianity and the arts as he considers whether the tragic can exist in Christian art in light of the resurrection. For more information on this series, see the series introduction.]
In her introduction to the edited anthology The Tragic Abyss, critic and genre theorist Louise Cowan argues that tragedy, for its relative rarity of appearance within the Western canon, continues to exert a deep hold on our collective imaginations. It ‘appears like a kind of fractal design in the margins of our music, our films, our news media. It punctuates our conversations; it governs our relationships and exhales in our dreams.’ For Cowan, tragedy in its dramatic form helps us to recognise the tragic as such, but that ‘sense of the tragic’ exceeds the form that gives it birth, so much so that it is now ‘a necessary ingredient of the Western mind.’ This ‘tragic sense’ is a sort of metaphysical revelation, a glimpsing of the horrific abyss of human culpability in all that is broken. This transforming vision lies at the heart of the classic Greek and Shakespearean dramas—causing Oedipus to put out his eyes and Lady Macbeth to sleepwalk in a murky hell, washing bloodstained hands that can never come clean— but still shows its face today. It makes itself known in myriad ways, from the way we talk about the ‘tragedy’ of the latest atrocity to dominate a news cycle to works of art as diverse as the television series Breaking Bad or the disturbing photographic chronicles of environmental devastation by Daniel Beltrá or Edward Burtynsky.
But what role does this ‘tragic sense’ that permeates Western life have in the art of the Christian believer for whom the hope of the resurrection would seem to overcome, and certainly deny the ultimacy of, this brokenness at the heart of the human experience? Put plainly: in light of the resurrection, can there be such a thing as ‘the tragic’ in Christian art?
This question, I suggest, is a feast to be savoured for those rare and brave souls who, embedded within the Christian tradition, aspire to don the mantle of the theologian, philosopher, artist, or some combination thereof. I say this because perhaps the most fundamental thing that the Christian theologian, philosopher, and artist share is a desire to mine the sacred complexities that conceal themselves just below the surface of what at first seems simple or self-evident. In this question we find an excellent example of this phenomenon. Its directness suggests simplicity at first. It is, after all, phrased to invite a response as straightforward as a ‘yes’ or a ‘no.’
However, to give the question its proper due, we must acknowledge that contained within is a more profound inquiry. The implicit subject of our question’s opening clause is none other than the resurrected Christ; the One whose suffering, crucifixion, death, burial, and descent into hell both proceed and provide the context from which we must understand the resurrection. This is the One to whom faithful response must in some sense define what we would mean in describing any work of art as ‘Christian’ in the first place. From this vantage point, we must concede that the question, far from being simple at all, is inextricably rooted in the mystery of faith at the heart of the Christian proclamation: ‘Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.’ And it is precisely from this mystery, that the question behind our question appears: How shall we then live?
If we are to understand the role—or lack thereof—of the tragic in Christian art in light of the resurrection, then we must first understand what it means to view all of human life in that same light. To move to the case under consideration here, of what it means to make ‘Christian’ art, it is essential to step back and understand how the Easter proclamation that ‘Christ is Risen’ radically reshapes humanity’s way of being in the world. On this point, the classically orthodox Christian tradition is univocal. As representative examples, one need only look to the work of two preeminent theologians of the twentieth century, one Catholic and one Protestant: Joseph Ratzinger and Karl Barth.
Writing from a Catholic perspective, Joseph Ratzinger sets forth that ‘To the Christian, faith in the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is an expression of certainty that the saying that seems to be only a beautiful dream is in fact true: “Love is strong as death”.’ Further, Christ’s resurrected life is not the same life that He possessed before:
it is zoe, new, different, definitive life;…this new life begot itself in history and had to do so, because after all it is there for history, and the Christian message is basically nothing else than the testimony that love has managed to break through death here and thus has transformed fundamentally the situation of all of us.
Similarly, Karl Barth frames the Easter narrative thus:
The third day a new life of Jesus begins; but at the same time on the third day there begins a new ‘Aeon’, a new shape of the world, after the old world has been completely done away and settled in the death of Jesus Christ. Easter is the breaking in of a new time and world in the existence of the man Jesus, who now begins a new life as the conqueror, as the victorious bearer, as the destroyer of the burden of man’s sin, which had been laid upon Him.
Jesus’ resurrection, then ‘tells us that our enemies, sin, the curse and death, are beaten.’ With the human situation radically reconfigured, having been freed from the oppression of ‘our enemies’ and invited into a new and ‘definitive’ life in the victory of Christ’s love at the resurrection, the question behind our question presents itself again: How shall we then live?
This, I argue, is also the fundamental question at play in chapter fifteen of St Paul’s first letter to the church at Corinth. Here, Paul deals explicitly with the implications of Christ’s resurrection for the believer. He vehemently refutes the claims of those within the fellowship who deny the hope of bodily resurrection. On the contrary, Paul argues, if resurrection is impossible, then so is the resurrection of Christ, and ‘if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain’ (1 Cor. 15:14, NRSV). But this is not the case. Paul is adamant, ‘Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have died’ (15:20), and ‘as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ’ (15:22). This glorious truth, vouchsafed by Christ’s victory over death (15:54-55), leads Paul to invite the Corinthians into doxology (15:57) and faithful living in the pattern of The Lord: ‘Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labour is not in vain’ (15:58).
In short, the believer lives and works in all circumstances from the knowledge that even physical death is no longer a source of fear because resurrection is secured in Christ. As St Peter tells us, God the Father has given the Christian ‘a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading’ (1 Peter 1:3b-4a).
From here, having glimpsed the hope that is promised in the resurrection and heard in the call to live in light of that hope, we can perhaps move closer to an answer regarding ‘the tragic’ in Christian art. If, as Paul suggests, ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’ (1 Cor. 15:54b), then what possible place can the tragic play in Christian art? There are certainly powerful voices throughout the Christian tradition for whom the clear answer would seem to be, ‘None at all.’ As early as the fourth century AD, St Augustine famously lamented his pre-conversion love of theatrical tragedy, seeing in it a perverse desire to find enjoyment in suffering without having to endure it physically.
With the human situation radically reconfigured, having been freed from the oppression of ‘our enemies’ and invited into a new and ‘definitive’ life in the victory of Christ’s love at the resurrection, the question behind our question presents itself again: How shall we then live?
Much closer to the present day, in his book, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth, theologian David Bentley Hart vigorously criticises the attempts of theologians like Donald MacKinnon and Nicholas Lash to incorporate the tragic vision into their theological thinking about the cross and the atonement. MacKinnon and Lash share a concern to combat a tendency to theologise away genuine and profound suffering in the fallen world, to point too quickly to the joy of ‘Christ has risen,’ while glossing over the preceding ‘Christ has died’ in the mystery of faith. While Hart shows some sympathy for the concern, he vehemently objects to the means of correction.
Hart is a supremely gifted writer, and the concerns that motivate his stringent attack are not wholly invalid. Hart is driven by a conviction that when theology adopts a tragic lens in thinking of the suffering of the world, far from helping us resist an over-realised eschatology in light of the hope of resurrection, it accomplishes something worse. The tragic vision, in Hart’s reading, not only trivialises but necessarily legitimises the horror in the human potential for violence—epitomised in the cross and such modern atrocities as the Holocaust—by subtly participating in the myths of redemptive violence and tragic death as inherently ennobling its victims. In this way, a tragic theology conceals the worst aspects of fallen existence; that is, ‘the sheer contingency of evil, the injustice that destroys what is beautiful, the absolute, irrecuperable loss of the beloved.’
To my view, Hart’s argument relies too heavily on a reductive insistence on reading tragedy’s potential solely through the lens of Attic tragedy (that is, the extant work of the classical Greek tragedians), its cultic origins, and attendant metaphysical commitments. This seems to suggest, rather implausibly, that in originating the tragic form, the Greeks somehow simultaneously exhausted all its potential. Nevertheless, we do well to consider his warning and be on our guard lest, in attempting to avoid one extreme theological misstep, we uncritically fall into another.
Even outside of the church, the same suspicions can exist regarding the compatibility of the tragic form with Christianity’s core theological commitments. In his exploration of the validity of tragic drama in the modern West, literary critic George Steiner flatly declared that there ‘has been no specifically Christian mode of tragic drama’ because ‘Christianity is an anti-tragic vision of the world.’ Though he approaches the topic from a literary rather than a religious position, his appeal is explicitly built on a theology of the resurrection: ‘Being a threshold to the eternal, the death of a Christian hero can be an occasion for sorrow but not for tragedy.’ He continues, ‘real tragedy can occur only where the tormented soul believes that there is no time left for God’s forgiveness.’
Contra these voices, however, Hans Urs von Balthasar has argued convincingly that, ‘the tragedy of Jesus Christ surpasses the Greek and the Jewish tragedies only by simultaneously fulfilling them in itself.’ Balthasar argues that both Attic and Jewish (typified in the book of Job) tragic forms are fundamentally defined by the sense of the ‘ultimate contradictoriness’ of existence shaped in the tensions between individual or communal guilt and divinely determined destiny. The crucified Christ surpasses and fulfils these by ‘entering within the form of suffering of all humanity and sharing in this suffering, as it has been revealed to us in the ultimate contradictoriness both of Greek existence and of Jewish existence.’ For Balthasar, the tragedy of the cross belongs just as wholly to the Christologically shaped reality of Christian existence as does the joy of the resurrection. This reality means that while we await the eschatological fulfilment of the mystery of faith, when ‘Christ will come again’ finally becomes ‘Christ IS come again,’ the Christian lives always in their own state of paradoxical contradictoriness. They are, in a sense, within the tragic, but not of it.
At the cross, Balthasar maintains that ‘through Christ, the gift of reconciliation is made to us in faith.’ However, it is precisely through this reconciliation, in faith, that the paradox makes itself known. This is because faith in Christ means ‘following after—not merely sitting in the space for the spectators of the tragedy, but taking one’s part in the action on the stage…and that thus following Christ into his victory can only mean following him onto the Cross, as all the promises of Christ to his disciples unanimously proclaim.’ In directing our attention to the Christian’s necessary participation in the cruciform suffering of the Christ who suffers for us, Balthasar reminds us of the not-yet resolved tragic dimension of human life. To acknowledge this ongoing paradox of cruciform victory is not to surrender the joy of divine reconciliation that the resurrection betokens, but to hold onto the present hope afforded in its ultimate, eschatological consummation. In the story’s climax, returning to Paul’s letter to the Corinthians:
When this perishable body puts on imperishability, and this mortal body puts on immortality, then the saying that is written will be fulfilled:
‘Death has been swallowed up in victory.’
‘Where, O Death, is your victory?
Where, O Death, is your sting?’ (1 Cor. 15:54-55)
Until that day, the disciple of Jesus is led to live in the pattern of her crucified saviour, within the cross-shaped paradox of the ‘inability of our heart to carry within itself simultaneously the love of the most holy Trinity and love of a world alienated from the Trinity;’ this ‘is precisely the death agony of the only begotten Son, an agony he calls on us to share.’
Only now, at the end of all our questioning, can we fully grasp an answer to the question that set off this exploration. If art is to bear the label ‘Christian’ at all, it can only do so insofar as it participates in the lived daily realities of Christian existence as such. This existence is inextricably linked by faith, practice, worship, and devotion to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, who ‘stretched out [his] arms of love on the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within the reach of [his] saving embrace.’ In so doing, his embrace encompassed all of human life—even and especially the tragic—and He who died, is risen, and will come again, now invites us into the same. Because this is so, and until our faith is made glorious sight, the answer to the question of whether in light of the resurrection there can be such a thing as ‘the tragic’ in Christian art can only, as in Christian life, be a resounding and awe-full, ‘Yes and Amen. Come Lord Jesus.’
Elisabet Ney, Lady Macbeth, 1905, marble, Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Edmund Montgomery and Ella D. Dibrell, Trustee, 1998.79.
 Louise Cowan, ‘Introduction: The Tragic Abyss’, in The Tragic Abyss, ed. Glenn Arbery (The Dallas Institute Publication, 2003).
 Ibid., 1.
 Ibid., 5.
 In this writer’s humble opinion, Walter White’s crazed fits of laughter, lying on his back in the dirt beneath his house at the end of the season 4 episode ‘Crawl Space’, may be one of the finest examples of anagnorisis ever filmed. C.f., Breaking Bad Season 4, episode 11, ‘Crawl Space’. Directed by Scott Winant. Aired September 25, 2011, on AMC.
 Joseph Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, trans. J.R. Foster and Michael J. Miller (San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2004), 301–2.
 Ibid., 307.
 Karl Barth, Dogmatics in outline (London: SCM, 2001), 122.
 Ibid., 123.
 Augustine, ‘Confessions. Books 1–8’, trans. William Watts (Harvard University Press, 2014), bk. III, 2, https://doi.org/10.4159/DLCL.augustine-confessions_2014.2014.
 See especially Donald M. MacKinnon, Borderlands of Theology and Other Essays, ed. George W. Roberts and Donovan E. Smucker (London: Lutterworth Press, 1968). and Donald M. Mackinnon, ‘Theology and Tragedy’, Religious Studies 2, no. 2 (1967): 163–69.
 See especially Nicholas Lash, Theology on the Way to Emmaus (London: SCM Press, 1986).
 David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005).
 David Bentley Hart, ‘The Consolations of Tragedy, The Terrors of Easter’, in The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 2005), 393.
 George Steiner, The Death of Tragedy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1980), 331.
 Ibid., 332.
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, ‘Tragedy and the Christian Faith’, in Creator Spirit, vol. III, Explorations in Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).
 Hans Urs von Balthasar, ‘Hellas and Israel’, in Creator Spirit, vol. III, Explorations in Theology (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1993).
 Balthasar, ‘Tragedy and the Christian Faith’.
 J. Daniélou, Essai sur le mystère de l’histoire, quoted in Ratzinger, Introduction to Christianity, 290.
 Episcopal Church, The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David, According to the Use of the Episcopal Church. (New York: Church Publishing, 1979), 101.