Tragic Worship

The problem with much Christian worship in the contemporary world, Catholic and Protestant alike, is not that it is too entertaining but that it is not entertaining enough. Worship characterized by upbeat rock music, stand-up comedy, beautiful people taking center stage, and a certain amount of Hallmark Channel sentimentality neglects one classic form of entertainment, the one that tells us, to quote the Book of Common Prayer, that “in the midst of life we are in death.”

It neglects tragedy. Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship. The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken. Even the cry “Jesus is Lord!” assumes an understanding of lordship very different than Caesar’s. Christ’s lordship is established by his sacrifice upon the cross, Caesar’s by power.

Perhaps some might recoil at characterizing tragedy as entertainment, but tragedy has been a vital part of the artistic endeavors of the West since Homer told of Achilles, smarting from the death of his beloved Patroclus, reluctantly returning to the battlefields of Troy. Human beings have always been drawn to tales of the tragic, as to those of the comic, when they have sought to be lifted out of the predictable routines of their daily lives—in other words, to be entertained.

From Aeschylus to Tennessee Williams, tragedians have thus enriched the theater. Shakespeare’s greatest plays are his tragedies. Who would rank Charles Dickens over Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad? Tragedy has absorbed the attention of remarkable thinkers from Aristotle to Hegel to Terry Eagleton.

ravenChristian worship should immerse people in the reality of the tragedy of the human fall and of all subsequent human life. It should provide us with a language that allows us to praise the God of resurrection while lamenting the suffering and agony that is our lot in a world alienated from its creator, and it should thereby sharpen our longing for the only answer to the one great challenge we must all face sooner or later. Only those who accept that they are going to die can begin to look with any hope to the resurrection.

Yet today tragedy has, with few exceptions, dropped from popular entertainment. Whether it is the sentimentalism of the Hallmark Channel, the pyrotechnics of action movies, or the banal idiocy of reality TV, the tragic sensibility is all but lost. This is further compounded by the trivial way in which the language of tragedy is now used in popular parlance. As with defining moment and crisis, the wordstragedy and tragic are now expected to perform Stakhanovite levels of linguistic labor. In a world where even sporting defeats can be described as tragedies, rarely do the terms speak of the catastrophic moral crises and heroic falls that lie at the heart of great tragic literature.

Yet human life is still truly tragic. Death remains a stubborn, omnipresent, and inevitable reality. For all of postmodern anti-essentialism, for all the repudiation of human nature, for all the rhetoric of self-creation, death eventually comes to all, frustrates all, levels all. It is not simply a linguistic construct or a social convention. Yet despite this, Western culture has slowly but surely pushed death, the one impressive inevitability of human life, to the very periphery of existence.

Pascal observed the problem in seventeenth-century France when he saw the obsession with entertainment as the offspring of the fallen human desire to be distracted from any thought of mortality. “I have often said that the sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room,” he said. And: “Distraction is the only thing that consoles us for miseries, and yet it is itself the greatest of our miseries.”

Today the problem is even greater: Entertainment has apparently become many people’s primary purpose of existence. I doubt that it would surprise Pascal that the world has increased the size, scope, and comprehensiveness of distraction. It would not puzzle him that death has been reduced to little more than a comic-book cartoon in countless action movies or into a mere momentary setback in soap operas and sitcoms. Indeed, he would not find it perplexing that the bleak spiritual violence of mortality leaves no lasting mark on the bereaved in the surreal yet seductive world of popular entertainment.

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Carl R. Trueman is Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary.

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  • JMC

    The whole tendency of trying to push death away is also highly evident in the whole “Don’t eat that” mentality. People look at me in shock when I say, when your number’s up, you’re dying, and no power on this earth can keep you alive. The reverse side of that coin answers the concern about doctors “pulling the plug” whether you want them to or not: If your number’s NOT up, no power on this earth can kill you. We’ve seen evidence of this many times in the news, most prominently in the occasional story of a skydiver whose parachute doesn’t open, but he survives the fall. I even remember one incident in the early 1980s of a woman who actually GOT UP AND WALKED AWAY from her landing site after such a fall, and was subsequently treated only for sprains and bruising! Today’s American society cannot deal with such a casual attitude about death. It’s there, nothing we can do is going to drive it away, so we just live with it.
    On another note, I particularly like Pascal’s statement that the cause of much man’s unhappiness is that he doesn’t know how to stay quietly in his room. Perhaps that’s why the introvert, who SPECIALIZES in staying quietly in his room, is so maligned by society in general…and it rolls right off him like water off a duck. Every introvert I’ve ever met is characterized by a wondrous inner contentment, even in the face of adversity. (This, of course, doesn’t count the ones who are self-isolating because of such clinical mental illnesses as depression and some forms of schizophrenia.)

  • ray

    It is interesting that Bishop Sheen(?) once commented about society’s fear of death when he compares Victorian era to ours. He showed how the Victorian era was fascinated by the idea of death and the subject that was taboo was sex. Now our era is fascinated completely and immersed in sex and the subject that is taboo is death.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    Forgive me for nit-picking, especially if I’m misunderstanding your meaning, but “Don’t eat that” is about our responsibility to maintain good health – which is actually part of the Commandment “Thou shalt not kill”.

    If you are suggesting that it doesn’t matter what we do, we are going to die when God has determined we are going to die (as many people believe), then I must point out that this goes against God’s respect for the gift of free will that He has given us.

    For examle, if we choose to smoke, God is not going to protect us from experiencing the consequences of that choice, which includes shortening our life span. It is a form of suicide, albeit in slower motion. And that is part of the tragedy of murder and suicide (self murder) – that we put our will before God’s in the most horrific way.

    If God permits murder to happen, even though it is not His ordaining will, there is no theological reason for us to believe that we can do whatever we want to our own body, our temple of the Holy Spirit, and that God will overrule our will with His own.

  • OlderWoman

    This comment has been deleted by the Editor.

  • I give a talk which is based on “The Last Four Things – Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell.” The link is here The interesting thing is how many people enjoy the presentation because no one ever suggested to them that they think about the Final Judgment and eternity. These are folks who attend services in many Christian faiths which is really quite disrturbing.

  • Dust in the Wind

    I think the point being made is along the lines of divinizing the body itself. We are all overly consumed with eating a perfect diet which in itself is not bad, but St Francis also referred to his body as ” brother ass”. And the flesh is an obstacle to the life in the spirit. People today might be so bold to call St Francis a sinner because of how harshly he treated his body. God never said ….live long and prosper…I believe that was Spock….lol. He wants us to love…and there is not greater love then that of one who lays down his life for another. And a person who smokes 2 packs a day, but gives of himself according to the parable of the last judgement will find himself in far better company with the saints and angles then someone who practices yoga and tries to live a so called balanced life of good works and self preservation.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    Perhaps, but I suspect it is more likely the ‘you won’t die until your God-intended number’s up’ meaning that his post explicitly cites.

    Your points are valid, but I don’t think my post came even close to endorsing the opposite extreme of concern for health that becomes body worship.

    Since the Lord gave us the Commandments & calls us to strive to be perfect as He is perfect, we should not dismiss the dangerously common misunderstanding about our free will’s ability to impact our mortality but should educate people in the faith as a spiritual work of mercy.

  • chaco

    For those who haven’t met the “Person of Truth”(Jesus), Talk of Resurrection and “God with us” is just that: talk. Consequently, the only coping mechanism available to those unaquainted with “The Resurrection & the Life” is denial. [ Fatima prayer when offerring/ sacrificing our lives (Joys, works & trials) in union with Jesus’ ; “Oh my Jesus, it is for love of Thee, in reparation for the outrages committed against The Immaculate Heart of Mary & for the conversion of poor sinners.” (Note; Sacri (Holy) – fice(to make) includes more than just trials/ sufferring. Understanding this and adopting Jn. 16: 33 as my “Life’s Motto” was an epiphany for me. ]