Monday, October 14, 2013

The tragedy

I read a Shakespeare play for the first time recently: “The Tragedy of Arthur”. The chances are you haven’t heard of it because it doesn’t exist.

“The Tragedy of Arthur” is a novel by contemporary writer, Arthur Phillips, about the discovery of a long-lost Shakespeare play about King Arthur. The novel includes the entire text of the play and a long introduction – which is, in fact, an autobiography of a fictionalised Arthur Phillips, the man with the lost play in his possession. As the story unfolds, the reader – along with the narrator – becomes increasingly convinced that the play is a fake, made up by fictional Phillips’ fraudster father. But it could, just about, be genuine. And part of us wants it to be.

But of course, we know it’s all made up anyway.

The novel turns on ideas about authenticity, fakery and the desire to believe – at times despite the evidence. I particularly enjoyed some iconoclastic asides, in which the narrator lays into Shakespeare with the shocking claim that not everything Shakespeare wrote was all that good. Could even the Bard of Avon have dropped some clangers?

Take Hamlet, possibly Shakespeare’s finest work, urges faux-Phillips. Take the scene following the discovery of Ophelia’s drowned corpse, a moment of pathos and tender tragedy. Queen Gertrude describes Ophelia’s flower-strewn watery grave in lines of tender lyrical poetry. And a penis joke.

...crow-flowers, nettles, daisies, and long purples
That liberal shepherds give a grosser name...


Arguably, that bit of nudge-nudge-wink-wink hardly serves the mood of the scene. Rather spoils the moment? It’s a crass mistake, a duff line, rants Phillips. But Shakespeare need not worry. For the patron saint of English literature can do no wrong. Enter four hundred years’ worth of directors, actors, academics, critics – not to mention audiences – who scramble to justify William the Great, to find ways make the sore-thumb line work. It’s Shakespeare’s uncanny Freudian-before-Freud grasp of Gertrude’s psychology. Or it’s his artful and brilliant reflection of the theme of “beauty and the grotesque”, which permeates the entire play. Et cetera. One thing must be insisted upon: Shakespeare could never have written a bad line.

Beneath the irreverent banter, Arthur Phillips (the real one) clearly has a great love of, and respect for, Shakespeare’s works. I, too, love Shakespeare. But I, like Arthur Phillips (the false one) have sometimes found myself thinking, “Wait a minute – that’s not actually a very good line (/scene/play)”. Even A Midsummer Night’s Dream (which, apart from being the best play ever written, is also my favourite) has some jokes that take considerable invention for a director to render funny. I know; I’ve directed it.

Don’t tell anyone I said that.

Anyway, it got me thinking about God.

God, like Shakespeare (and the British press, but that’s topic for another day) is beyond criticism. You simply are not allowed to suggest that He Who Is Worthy Of Capitalised Pronouns could possibly get anything wrong. This, after all, is the deity who has none other than John Milton, that other titan of English literature, writing an epic poem in ten books “to justify the ways of God to men”.

On a dry theological level, I must concede the point. God has all the omnis in His favour: omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent. But this does make it rather difficult to have an authentic relationship with Him. Because, frankly, sometimes it feels rather like He has got it wrong. And if we’re not allowed to say it, then any relationship begins to feel more like politeness – or even pretence. (Remember the Emperor’s New Clothes”? There is a Christian equivalent.)

Faced with storms decimating eastern India or closer-to-home tragedies like a dying parent (or even, I admit somewhat shamefacedly, mundane trials like a delayed house move), I find myself wanting to say, “Come on, God! What are You up to?”

But that’s not allowed, is it? He’s God; by definition He must be right.

Many contemporary Christian worship lyrics refect this. These songs are often on one note only: a note called something like “praisy-boingy-woingy-happy-glory-hallelujah”. Even songs that touch on darker themes generally do so only to laud God for being unswervingly at our side throughout. “Never once did we ever walk alone” croons a popular anthem, with more than a nod to Rogers and Hammerstein and/or Liverpool Football Club.

But what about when we are alone? When, God’s omnipresence notwithstanding, all sense of Him has vanished?

Where contemporary worship too often fails, the bible comes to the rescue. There’s wonderfully gloomy Psalm 88 with its eighteen verses of depression and despair, culminating with the words “Darkness is my only companion”. There it ends without so much as a Praise the Lord. Or Abraham’s bartering. Or Job’s complaint. Or Jeremiah’s lament. Or the most dark unanswered prayer of all: “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me!”

The bible’s writers weren’t averse to letting God know when, in their view, He’d failed to come up with the goods. Nowhere do their writings descend into whining and they are shot through with worship and theological depth. Psalm 88 accuses God, whilst simultaneously appealing to Him; Abraham frames his haggling with reverence; Job ends with eloquent silence; Jeremiah’s grief is transmuted into some of the most beautiful poetry in the scripture; Christ’s unanswered prayer leads to the redemption of the world.

But this doesn't prevent them from letting God have it with both barrels.

I want to make a plea for lament and complaint to be part of our worship (on which, see this rather wonderful post I read a while back). It’s different to whining. It’s different to boring “God is not great” atheism (that’s the equivalent of the Year 10 student who opines that “Shakespeare is crap”). It will take careful expression, poetic artistry. It will demand honesty, bravery, authenticity.

Yet lament, complaint, accusation, pain expressed – they are part of a real, authentic, biblical walk with God. The tragedy, not just of Arthur, but of me, of you, of us all – even of God – needs expressing.

Let’s get talking to God about those things. He’s not Shakespeare. He can cope. It’s part of truly loving Him.

4 comments:

John Vagabond said...

Bravo, and well put. Doesn't hurt to give the sacred cow a prod or two, once in a while.

pierscjc said...

Look at Psalm 44! It's amazing - God wake up, you have devastated us and we have not been unfaithful!
Can we even explain it?

Rob Bentley said...

Job had lots to complain about, and did, but read Job 42:1-6 to see his conclusion when he had encountered God.

Lionheart said...


If God's got all the omnis then we've got all the dis's; disappointment, disillusionment, disconcertion, disconformity, distraction, discontentment, disempowerment, disenchantment, discouragment, dislocation, disorientation, disease, and so on, oh and discipleship...(could I get away with slipping despare in there?)
If He is going to meet us anywhere, it's in our pain, maybe because it is so prevelant. But you have to admit all that stuff that we're taught to ignore is there first, all that that stuff which actually constitutes the lion's share of our lives. One of the keystones of the fallen human condition is tragedy or the knowledge that things should have been different but aren't. Absurdity and tragedy are also the key notes of Ecclesiastes...yet He also holds on to God as his conclusion despite it all!