Christ the Tragedy of God

A Theological Exploration of Tragedy

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Kevin Taylor
  • New York, NY: 
    Routledge
    , September
     2018.
     185 pages.
     $140.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781138092143.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Kevin Taylor describes Christ the Tragedy of God as the non-systematic exploration of “a conversation between theology and tragedy” about matters of shared concern (ix). This statement reveals the character of the book more clearly than its title does; while Christ appears throughout the text, he does so in the manner of a leitmotif rather than a constant topic of discussion. Taylor does examine “the merits and challenges of placing the central narrative of the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ in tragic terms” (ix), but he also engages a number of other issues: the capaciousness of tragedy as a literary genre, the psychological benefits of the tragic, the proper ethical response to tragic reflection, the existential ubiquity of contingency, the ironies and ambiguities of Christianity’s historical impact, and the nature of God’s activity in the world.  

At times, this constant shift of focus may disorient the reader, as Taylor moves in and out of different registers—from the literary to the experiential to the historical to the theological. For example, in chapter 3 (“Apollo and rational coherence”), this reviewer found herself losing track of whether Taylor was making claims about how literary critics should interpret tragedy as a genre, what theologians should say about the proper mode of theological reflection, or what Christians should say about God. Clearer signaling might have forestalled some of this confusion, yet on the whole, Christ the Tragedy of God conveys the impression that such register-switching is an unavoidable product of Taylor’s deep theoretical convictions. For him, tragic literature reveals fundamental structures of human life and experience that inevitably affect the shape of God’s work within creation. Incarnation is already God’s participation in tragedy—long before Christ undergoes his passion—and the communication of the Christian faith across subsequent centuries remains mired in tragic ambiguity. This theological thesis drives the text from start to finish, and it’s a thesis worth engaging.

The general lines of Taylor’s argument for the inherently tragic elements of human existence are familiar; Taylor draws on Donald MacKinnon’s theology, as Rowan Williams has recently done in The Tragic Imagination: The Literary Agenda (Oxford University Press, 2016). In Taylor’s account, peripeteia—the ironic mismatch between intention and result—is a central literary device of tragedy as well as an inescapable challenge to our ordinary moral decision-making (121). The irreversibility of time makes our deeds impossible to erase when we belatedly recognize their unfortunate consequences (94). Even setting aside our tragic flaws and moments of willful blindness, our finitude continually requires us to make forced choices between incompatible goods. Chapter 4, “Prometheus and the economics of sacrifice,” gives a compelling account of tragedy’s sacrificial economy.

Taylor proposes that tragedy recurs throughout world literature, and as a general mode of human thought, due to its ability to help us to explore things that would otherwise be inexpressible and incalculable—namely, irreparable loss and impossible choices (31, 67). This insistence on the ubiquity of tragic reflection is mirrored by the wide range of authors whose work falls within Taylor’s definition of the tragic, from William Shakespeare and the Greeks to Thomas Hardy and Samuel Beckett, Shusaku Endo (Silence, Peter Owen Publishing, 1966) and Stephen King (The Green Mile, Signet Books, 1996). Taylor’s use of tragedy as a family resemblance term—encompassing a range of literary works that reflect on ambiguity, contingency, and loss—leads him to insist that literary theory should not privilege the tragic conventions of Greek drama. For instance, Chapter 6 argues for the tragic advantages of the novel, which can devote sustained attention to details of perspective, circumstance, and particularity. With regard to religion, Chapter 2 lays out a case for applying the category of tragedy to a number of biblical texts and recognizing its influence on traditional Jewish and Christian thought. One recurring concern of Christ the Tragedy of God appears to be Taylor’s desire to convince skeptics who might fear that the tragic genre is an unbecoming vehicle for Christian reflection; he believes that tragedy does not encourage defeatism but, on the contrary, demands social change while promoting a healthy sense of moral humility.

If Christianity is incompatible with defeatism, Taylor notes that it is equally incompatible with triumphalism. Christ’s “tragic” incarnation is the theological key for staving off both extremes. Much as Paul Tillich thought that God could only overcome the ambiguities of creation from within it, Taylor believes that existential tragedy must be transcended from the inside. In Christ, God demonstrated a kenotic willingness to submit to the tragic conditions of human existence (108): Jesus’s ministry of reconciliation stirred up animosity and conflict, triggering hardhearted rejections of divine grace. However, Taylor holds to the theological distinction between absolute power and ordained power (107). For him, this implies that God’s willing submission to tragedy must be read against the wider background of God’s inscrutable sovereignty. We cannot be certain how God’s purposes will prevail as they unfold within the tragic reversals of human history, but we can be certain that they will prevail. Incarnation proves that human freedom, tragic contingency, and divine re-signification of meaning are not incompatible (116). “There are no final contingencies,” Taylor concludes. “The idea that suffering and alienation are somehow eternal is not coherent with either tragedy or Christian theology” (147).  Theology needs the tragic mode, but God’s final word on creation will belong to a different genre.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Janna Gonwa is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at Yale University.

Date of Review: 
May 13, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kevin Taylor is Associate Professor in the Department of Religion and Practical Theology at Pfeiffer University, USA. His publications include co-editing Christian Theology and Tragedy (Ashgate, 2011), and Hans Urs von Balthasar and the Question of Tragedy in the Novels of Thomas Hardy (T&T Clark, 2013).

Comments

Kevin Taylor

There are no guarantees that one’s book will be reviewed, or that the review will be done by an incisive reader. I am fortunate to have had both.

Janna Gonwa is right to point to this being a messy project, which was one of its goals and methods. Good conversations aren’t rigid things, and for theology and literature (with their own inherent messes, because they both explore indefinable realities of God and human experience) to authentically explore their points of contact and dissimilarity will mean something unsystematic.

Gonwa highlights the diversity of literature that I incorporated, and I too was very proud of this aspect. The Green Mile and Silence were two very moving novels I had recently read, and working them in was very satisfying. (Using Stephen King was, for me, a great thumbing of the nose at academic snobbery.) Ironically enough, she highlights chapter 4 as compelling, and that was the chapter I was most concerned about.

Gonwa’s opening observation that the book’s material is less radical than its title is spot on. I struggled with this during the project, and wondered if I was misleading the reader or not. But I liked the title too much, and oddly enough the title does reflect the material on a deep level: speaking of God and tragedy is not a form of nihilistic or atheistic protest, but a deeply religious one. To speak of Christ as tragic is deeply Biblical and Christian.

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