The Comic Shape of Biblical History


In Deep Comedy, Peter Leithart compares the Bible’s essentially comic and hopeful view of history with the Greco-Roman view, which is essentially and irredeemably tragic.

In Paul’s estimation, anyone who thought that the new life through Jesus pertained to some realm outside this history was simply an unbeliever. For the gospel says otherwise.

Certainly, discerning this new life at work in the world is an act of faith, but faith is not irrational or a leap into the dark against evidence. If the gospel is true, if new life was unleashed in the world on Easter morning, then we would expect there to be some signs that this is the case. And, as the church fathers were at pains to point out, we do.

Athanasius noted all the pagans turning from their idols, all the warring tribes become brothers, all the swords being beaten to plowshares, and used these things to expound the effects of the Incarnation. Paul, however, means exactly what he says, the coming of Jesus, and particularly the resurrection of Jesus, means that death and sin are themselves doomed, and life is already on the march to conquer death. Darkness is being dispelled because Light has come and the darkness could neither comprehend nor overcome it (John 1:5).

This account of the comic shape of biblical history and the gospel narrative has been challenged by a number of theologians and biblical scholars in recent years. Biblical scholars have attempted to show that the Bible’s stories fit into the generic categories of ancient drama or poetry, and have tried to show in particular that certain biblical narratives can be classified as tragedy. In my view, these are not successful efforts either in general or in detailed treatment of texts. In her Tragedy and Biblical Narrative, for instance, Cheryl Exum emphasizes the struggle against fate/gods/God as a key element of tragedy:

Tragic heroes have the hubris—sometimes in authentic greatness, sometimes in delusion—to defy the universe, not in a stoic defiance but in an insistence on their moral integrity (justified or not). Because they refuse, they will be broken … It is not that there is “no way out whatsoever,” as Jasper asserts, but that there is no way out without denying oneself. Saul refuses to acquiesce, he will hold on to the kingship at whatever the cost, rejecting the easy way out. There is a “way out” and Saul’s son Jonathan, by yielding his right to the throne to David, shows what it is, but at the cost of his identity, which as we shall see, becomes submerged into David’s.

It is true that Saul is tragic in the sense that Exum uses the term, but it is also clear that his tragedy is the result of his own intransigence. The story clearly endorses precisely the “easy way out”—the way of Jonathan, the way of self-denial—which is, of course, the very difficult way out, since it means effacing (but also eventually finding) one’s own identity before Yahweh and before the “rival,” David. Jonathan, characterized by self-denial and even “discipleship,” is manifestly the hero of the story.  One can say that the Bible presents Saul as “tragic,” but only if we are willing to give up calling him, in any sense, a “hero.” Again, as in Jeremiah and the gospels, Saul’s story leaves one with an intense sense of loss precisely because there was a way out, precisely because life was a real option.

Further, Exum emphasizes that the tragic hero struggles particularly to understand the fate that brings tragic consequences. Oedipus is a titanic figure because he relentlessly pursues the truth of his situation. Again, the Bible has a “tragic dimension” in the sense that it irecognizes the reality of this kind of struggle, yet the Bible does not reckon this as a heroic struggle—a struggle to be commended and supported. The titanic desire and need to know is the desire to be as God, to know as God, the lust to have the complete and finished story as God does.

Put differently, it is a refusal of faith, a refusal to trust that God, however random and wild He may appear and be, will do right. It is a refusal to learn the wisdom of Ecclesiastes. From a biblical perspective, the tragic hero is simply a character who refuses to trust that God knows what He’s on about with His universe, and will accept his “fate” only if he can see all its causes and ramifications. The tragic protagonist longs to live by sight. Job, faced with “tragic” suffering, demands to know the cause. Yahweh appears and answers no questions; the revelation of Yahweh in a whirlwind is sufficient to stop Job’s mouth. The tragic pursuit of knowledge is a refusal of Solomonic wisdom as expressed in Ecclesiastes, the wisdom that rejoices in limitation, rejoices precisely because this vaporous world is not under our control.

Peter J. Leithart, Deep Comedy: Trinity, Tragedy, & Hope In Western Literature, pp. 26-28.

Credo ut intelligam.

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One Response to “The Comic Shape of Biblical History”

  • Tim Says:

    great article! In fact this is some wonderful material for the admonishment of going into the world, teaching the nations and claiming the world for Christ.