Christian Theology and Tragedy

Christianity can never turn its back either on tragedy or the tragic; not if it wants to
face the world squarely. The tragic all too evidently occurs and tragedy meditates
upon it – raising metaphysical and theological issues in its wake. This remarkable
collection of essays stages imaginative dialogues between voices, characters and
situations across two and half millennia of writing. And out of the conversations
created, as theological and philosophical reflection engages literary studies and
biography, comes a dazzling cross-fertilisation of thought and feeling. I have never
encountered a collection like this. It offers original and profound deliberations on
issues riddling human histories and sounding the mysterious depths of the human
condition itself.

Graham Ward, Professor in Contextual Theology and Ethics,
University of Manchester, UK

Can notions of a final and complete redemption, so central to Christian conviction,
be reconciled with the tragic vision and its acceptance of the irretrievability of
certain kinds of failure? The complexities involved here are not just theological,
but also involve themes central to literature, philosophical anthropology, and the
history of ideas. This excellent collection, by scholars belonging to a variety of
intellectual traditions, casts a new light on this question, while eschewing the
temptations of an easily gained clarity. It will certainly be a point of reference for
subsequent discussions of this topic.

Kenneth Surin, Professor of Literature and Professor of Religion
and Critical Theory, Duke University, USA

Drawing together leading scholars from both theological and literary backgrounds,
Christian Theology and Tragedy explores the rich variety of conversations between
theology and tragedy. Three main areas are examined: theological readings of a
range of tragic literature, from plays to novels and the Bible itself; how theologians
have explored tragedy theologically; and how theology can interact with various
tragic theories.
Encompassing a range of perspectives and topics, this book demonstrates how
theologians can make productive use of the work of tragedians, tragic theorists
and tragic philosophers. Common misconceptions – that tragedy is monolithic,
easily definable, or gives straightforward answers to theodicy – are also addressed.
Interdisciplinary in nature, this book will appeal to both the theological and literary

Notes on Contributors
Larry D. Bouchard is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University
of Virginia, teaching religion and literature, interpretation theory and modern
religious thought. His publications include Tragic Method and Tragic Theology
(Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989) and Theater and Integrity: Emptying
Selves in Drama, Ethics, and Religion (Northwestern University Press, 2011).
David S. Cunningham is Professor of Religion and the Director of the CrossRoads
Project at Hope College, Holland, Michigan. Some of his works that address
theology and tragedy include Reading is Believing: The Christian Faith Through
Literature and Film (Brazos Press, 2002); Friday, Saturday, Sunday: Literary
Meditations on Suffering, Death, and New Life (Westminster John Knox Press,
2007); and the forthcoming Theatre to the World: Toward a Dramatic Doctrine of
Revelation (Eerdmans).
David Ford is the Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge
and the Acting Director of the Cambridge Inter-Faith Programme. His publications
include Christian Wisdom (Cambridge University Press, 2007) and The Shape of
Theology (Blackwell, 2007).
Douglas Hedley is Reader in Hermeneutics and Metaphysics in the Divinity
Faculty at the University of Cambridge, as well as a fellow and tutor at Clare
College, Cambridge. He is currently working on a trilogy on the religious
Craig Hovey is Assistant Professor of Religion at Ashland University in Ashland,
Ohio. He is the author of Nietzsche and Theology (T&T Clark, 2008), To Share in
the Body (Brazos, 2008), and Speak Thus (Cascade, 2008).
Robin Kirkpatrick is Professor of Italian and English Literature in the Department
of Italian at the University of Cambridge. He has written a number of books on
Dante and on the Renaissance, and his new verse translation of the Commedia
with notes and commentary has recently been published by Penguin.
Vittorio Montemaggi is Assistant Professor of Religion and Literature at the
University of Notre Dame. He is the co-editor of Dante’s Commedia: Theology as
Poetry (University of Notre Dame Press, 2010).

Adrian Poole is Professor of English at the University of Cambridge. He is the
author of the introduction to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (Penguin,
2005), Tragedy: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2005) and
Tragedy: Shakespeare and the Greek Example (Blackwell, 1987).
Ben Quash is Professor of Christianity and the Arts in the Department of Theology
and Religious Studies, King’s College London. He is the author of a number of
articles on Hans Urs von Balthasar and theological aesthetics, and of a number
of books, including Balthasar at the End of Modernity, co-authored with Lucy
Gardner, David Moss and Graham Ward (T&T Clark, 1999); Theology and the
Drama of History (Cambridge University Press, 2005); and Introducing Christian
Ethics, co-authored with Sam Wells (Wiley-Blackwell, 2010).
Kevin Taylor received his PhD from the University of Cambridge (Peterhouse).
He is an adjunct lecturer at Pfeiffer University and Belmont Abbey College, and
an ordained pastor in the United Methodist Church.
Jennifer Wallace is a lecturer at the University of Cambridge, an official fellow of
Peterhouse and the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Tragedy (Cambridge
University Press, 2007).
Giles Waller studied at Peterhouse, University of Cambridge, for his undergraduate
degree in Divinity and is currently a PhD student there under David Ford. His
dissertation is on the tragic aspects of Luther’s theology.
Michael Ward is the chaplain of St Peter’s College, Oxford. He is the author
of Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C.S. Lewis (Oxford
University Press, 2008), a work which became the subject of the BBC 1 television
documentary, The Narnia Code (2009). He is also the co-editor, with Robert
MacSwain, of The Cambridge Companion to C.S. Lewis (Cambridge University
Press, 2010).


‘Christianity’, wrote Donald MacKinnon, ‘can provide men with a faith through
which they are enabled to hold steadfastly to the significance of the tragic.’1
This statement may seem surprising. Surely Christianity, with its emphasis on
redemption, on the ‘sure and certain hope’ of the resurrection, is inimical to
tragedy, with its endings in despair or dusty death? It has often been assumed,
and less frequently cogently argued, that there must be some sort of inherent
antagonism or opposition between Christian and tragic ‘worldviews’. One could
cite many examples of this, but it is perhaps Richard Sewall who puts the point most
forcefully: ‘In point of doctrine, Christianity reverses the tragic view and makes
tragedy impossible.’2 Such assumptions seem to rest on monolithic understandings
of tragedy – or a hypostasized notion of ‘the tragic’ – and an equally caricatured
‘Christianity’. On this view, Christian theology is presented as a naive escapism.
Earthly sufferings, like those of Christ, are negated or rectified by a compensatory
heaven,3 or rendered philosophically or theologically coherent in theodicies. This
is just the sort of theology to which MacKinnon was opposed. Similarly, one has to
pass through a great deal of selective interpretation to arrive at a view of tragedy as
straightforwardly nihilistic. The chapters in this volume show that, far from there
being an inherent antagonism between Christian theology and tragedy, they share
at the very least areas of profound mutual concern: the experience of suffering,
death and loss, questions over fate, freedom and agency, sacrifice, guilt, innocence,
the limits of human understanding, redemption and catharsis. We might even press
this further, and maintain with MacKinnon that an attentiveness to tragedy is vital
to a properly disciplined Christian theology and that, by the same token, Christian
theology can be a way of vouchsafing the true significance of tragedy. With the
breakdown of these caricatures of Christianity and tragedy, new possibilities for
conversation are opened up.


Edited by
Kevin Taylor
Pfeiffer University, USA
Giles Waller
University of Cambridge, UK


1 Donald MacKinnon, The Problem of Metaphysics (Cambridge: Cambridge
University Press, 1974), p. 134.
2 Richard Sewall, The Vision of Tragedy (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959),
p. 50.
3 See, for example, the great I.A. Richards, whose pronouncement on this might
be taken to be paradigmatic of this view: ‘Tragedy is only possible to a mind which is
for the moment agnostic or “Manichean”. The least touch of any theology which has a
compensating Heaven to offer the tragic hero is fatal.’ The Principles of Literary Criticism
(London: Kegan Paul, 1924), p. 246.

Ashgate Studies in Theology,
Imagination and the Arts
Series Editors:
Trevor Hart, St Mary’s College, University of St Andrews, Scotland
Jeremy Begbie, Duke University and University of Cambridge, USA
Roger Lundin, Wheaton College, USA
What have imagination and the arts to do with theology? For much of the modern era, the
answer has been, ‘not much’. It is precisely this deficit that this series seeks to redress. For,whatever role they have or have not been granted in the theological disciplines, imagination and the arts are undeniably bound up with how we as human beings think, learn and communicate, engage with and respond to our physical and social environments and, in  particular, our awareness and experience of that which transcends our own creatureliness.
The arts are playing an increasingly significant role in the way people come to terms
with the world; at the same time, artists of many disciplines are showing a willingness to
engage with religious or theological themes. A spate of publications and courses in many
educational institutions has already established this field as one of fast growing concern.
This series taps into a burgeoning intellectual concern on both sides of the Atlantic
and beyond. The peculiar inter-disciplinarity of theology, and the growing interest in
imagination and the arts in many different fields of human concern, afford the opportunity
for a series which has its roots sunk in varied and diverse intellectual soils, while focused
around a coherent theological question: How are imagination and the arts involved in the
shaping and reshaping of our humanity as part of the creative and redemptive purposes of
God, and what roles do they perform in the theological enterprise?
Many projects within the series have particular links to the work of the Institute for
Theology Imagination and the Arts in the University of St Andrews, and to the Duke
Initiatives in Theology and the Arts at Duke University.

Space, Time, and Presence in the Icon
Seeing the World with the Eyes of God
Clemena Antonova, with a preface by Martin Kemp
Redeeming Beauty
Soundings in Sacral Aesthetics
Aidan Nichols
Faith, Hope and Poetry
Theology and the Poetic Imagination
Malcolm Guite



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