Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Sacred & the Profane Part 2, Christian Tragedy?

Tragedy for Christians...or not?

Here we have a subject we hope will start a reader discussion.

The sacred & the profane, which I discussed yesterday, is a collected comic book series with an impressive total of three forewords, or excuse me, a "foreward [sic]," a "preface," and an "introduction." That's a lot of introducing.

Eric McLuhan is author of the preface, which asks the intriguing question, "Is a Christian tragedy possible?" Here is his answer:

But is a Christian tragedy possible? From a doctrinal point of view, no. Christianity offers salvation, ultimate reunion, external [sic] life; tragedy portrays loss, separation, death. (It is no new observation that all tragedies end with a death, all comedies end with a wedding.) Is, then, tragedy a dramatic form with any relevance to our present or future condition? Probably not. Except, perhaps, as a means of affording a pleasant nostalgia.

A couple of years back, I was at the Wyoming School of Catholic Thought. One of the professors there (I believe it was Dr. Robert K. Carlson, but I'm sure he'll forgive me if I'm misquoting him) stated that a Christian could never write tragedy. After the lecture, I ran up to him and contended that he was wrong, that Christians can indeed write tragedy; I personally found tragedy cathartic, and I was not about to give it up. I entered the fray armed with examples, namely the story of King Saul in the Bible and John Milton's Paradise Lost and Samson Agonistes. After Dr. Carlson calmed me down, he asked me what I meant by tragedy exactly. I replied, paraphrasing the Cliffs Notes to Paradise Lost, that tragedies were stories of noble people who destroy themselves.

He responded that I had a good understanding of tragedy. He then told me that many people today think of tragedies not as stories of self-destruction but as stories of people arbitrarily singled out by God for wrath or abuse. That is the kind of tragedy a Christian can't write.

Dr. Carlson continued by noting that the universe as a whole is a comedy, but that individual tragedies within that comedy are still possible because of free will, which leaves open the possibility of self-destruction and damnation, as we discussed in our essay on the film The Burning Hell. (And I recommend the further discussion on that film now up at The B-Movie Catechism.)

In other words, McLuhan is wrong. Christian tragedy is possible, even necessary. After all, a comedy could not be a comedy if it were not in danger of becoming a tragedy. The characters in the wedding at the comedy's end are there because they have escaped real danger. Had there been no danger, there would be no story and the happy ending would be hollow.
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