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Luke’s Lessons for Living amid Tragedy

By Neil Dhingra

In Why Study the Past?, his short but provocative book on church history, Rowan Williams suggests that historical writing should inspire us with wonder. This wonder is not a fascination with our achievements, but rather at the “capacity of God to maintain the steadiness of his work in the middle of earthly conflict and disruption.” If there are libraries, history books and even a few surviving church historians in the future, chapters on the present may have to witness to a “theology of the cross” — that the only God is one who remains God “through the apparent denial of his own purpose in tragedy and hellish suffering,” including sexual abuse and cover-ups. On this feast day of St. Luke, I would like to suggest that the saint can guide us through a non-triumphalist history tinged with disaster.

First, though, I wonder if our secular world does an extraordinary job of depicting tragedy but is less adept at showing how we might live in its aftermath. Take, for instance, last year’s brilliant, harrowing, and darkly funny reworking of Euripides, The Killing of a Sacred Deer (spoilers). In the film, Steven Murphy, a distinguished if impassive heart surgeon in a nice neighborhood, is confronted by a strangely persistent boy, Martin, whose father died in surgery because of Murphy’s depressingly ordinary negligence (“two drinks”). Martin is now obsessed with justice, to the point that, when he injures Murphy’s arm, he will bite his own flesh: “it’s symbolic.” Martin announces that Murphy must kill a member of his family or the doctor’s whole family will die in stages.

As Murphy’s children inexplicably fall ill, we see the collapse of his scientific knowledge, even in the confines of his cathedral-like hospital. Under stress, his relationship with his ophthalmologist wife, Anna, is revealed as competitive; his relationship with an anesthesiologist friend conceals sexual jealousy. When Murphy is at one point required to disclose a secret, he does not tell the truth about his medical negligence but instead unearths a dark story about his father that reveals deep and likely scarring sexual rivalry.

There is no deus ex machina in this film by Yorgos Lanthimos. But, at movie’s end, after unspeakable suffering, it’s unclear what Murphy and his (surviving) family have learned. His adolescent daughter remains fascinated with Martin, her ketchup over French fries reminiscent of death, reminding us that Iphigenia had convinced herself that child sacrifice could be glorious (“It was who could bring help to Greece”).

As for Murphy and Anna, it is hard to know what they are thinking. His wife once urged that Murphy kill a member of the family, noting that they could have another child, maybe with IVF. Perhaps that is how they will now manage — still flat, affectless, detached, technological. The movie was very positively reviewed, but some of the criticisms suggested that the characters felt merely like pieces in a “dare or elaborate game” or puppets in an “overly schematic allegory.”

In The Tragic Imagination (reviewed here), Rowan Williams suggests that tragedy reveals “how much in us there is to question or be baffled by,” that we may be unconsciously “already incubating seeds of destruction.” We would instead see ourselves as finished objects for contemplation — as gods, or as the equivalents of walled cities without strangers. Such would seem to be the case with Murphy, the heart surgeon who drank on the wrong morning. But the ultimate point of tragedy is to form a reconstituted self, not one that has forgotten suffering or simply been destroyed by it, and it is not clear how Steven might live a life informed by the experience of trauma. Even if it were, it is not clear how he would live such a life around the characters in the cold world of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, where even the camera angles are reminiscent of Stanley Kubrick.

Luke’s Gospel and Acts, however, show what it is like to live and have faith in the shadow of immense tragedy.[1] There is life after unmasking. The tragedy in Luke is not confined to the lurid reversal of fortune that afflicts the once powerful Herod, whose hubris prevents him, repeatedly, from seeing the signs of God around him. It isn’t just the ironic fate of characters like Judas, once one of the Twelve, whose betrayal of Jesus and death are connected to possessiveness — specifically the field he purchased with blood money onto which “all his intestines spilled out” (Acts 1:18). He recapitulates the fate of the rich man whose recognition of his life’s endpoint, despite “Moses and the Prophets” (Luke 16:28), came far too late.

Luke’s Gospel and Acts are immersed in still greater tragedy. Even though God “has come to his people and redeemed them” (1:68), Israel cannot recognize him because of ignorance. “Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance,” Peter says in Acts (3:17), which Paul repeats in Antioch. We’ve already foreseen a horrific reversal of fortune in the heart-rending imagery of a city under siege as Jesus wept over Jerusalem (19:43), with an emphasis on the fate of the vulnerable (21:23), particularly helpless innocents (23:27). Israel could not see the “fulfillment of all that has been written” (21:22). This not seeing becomes historical pattern in Stephen’s speech in Acts, the pathos intensified as the inability to see rips a people apart — here, Moses is “pushed aside” (7:27) by his own.

The tragedy of Israel is not an argument for supersessionism. As Robert Tannehill writes, we are invited to imagine the plight of Jerusalem with no less than “sympathetic pity.” Further, the tragedy of Israel calls into question God’s promises for Gentile and Jew, for as John the Baptist declared, “All flesh shall see God’s salvation” (Luke 3:6). In other words, nothing in the preceding is incompatible with the hopes of Cardinal Kasper and others that “at the end of time both Jews and Christians will recognize the ‘One who is to come,’ the eschatological messiah.” Finally, as Rowan Williams writes, tragic drama (or history) always poses questions to its witnesses — “like the speakers on stage, I may not know what I am doing and so I may already be involved in processes over which I have no control.” We can read Luke with neither contempt nor distance.

Williams suggests that Luke’s account of the travelers at Emmaus shows how Christians are to live amid tragedy, not imagine themselves exempted or healed. Christians recognize that history is a foreshadowing of Jesus’ death and that they are often in “flight from the place of his death.” But God remains to tell them the story of that history and break bread. The irony of disciples left unable to recognize the signs of God and then suffering becomes a story of a greater irony: God is still present even “through the apparent denial of his own purpose,” even as we are fleeing.

To live amid tragedy in a Christian way, then, means recognizing that we, who will often pronounce that another “does not know the things that have happened” (24:18), often fail to see. Our deeply felt religious language — “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people” (24:19) — may conceal our misunderstanding that the Messiah had to suffer and die. We recognize that it was “our hearts burning within us” (24:34), much later than we should have, after the day’s end. And, as Tannehill notes, history is not over. “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel,” say the dejected travelers to Emmaus. In Acts 1:6, the apostles ask Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” We still must ask.

Meanwhile, we can trust that Jesus will be present amid human failure, as interpreter as well as interpreted, and in the breaking of bread. As Williams writes in his poem about Emmaus (perhaps his entire theology, as Ben Myers writes, is about Emmaus), this is the Eucharist as strangely thunderous; the light falls on us, but the “light falls sharply on our bones,” as if by lightning in our darkness. Luke teaches us that we should be fascinated, but not with ourselves. For, if we can still find our way to church through “earthly conflict and disruption,” it is surely because a stranger walked with us when we were going the other way.


[1] My exegesis is especially indebted to R.C. Tannehill (1985), “Israel in Luke-Acts: A Tragic Story,” Journal of Biblical Literature104 (1), pp. 69-85, and D. Lee. (2013), Luke-Acts and “Tragic History”: Communicating Gospel with the World (Mohr Siebeck, 2013).


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