David Bentley Hart on the rude interruption

resurrection‘Nietzsche, the quixotic champion of the old standards, thought jesting Pilate’s “What is truth?” to be the only moment of actual nobility in the New Testament, the wry taunt of an acerbic ironist unimpressed by the pathetic fantasies of a deranged peasant. But one need not share Nietzsche’s sympathies to take his point; one can certainly see what is at stake when Christ, scourged and mocked, is brought before Pilate a second time: the latter’s “Whence art thou?” has about it something of a demand for a pedigree, which might at least lend some credibility to the claims Christ makes for himself; for want of which, Pilate can do little other than pronounce his truth: “I have power to crucify thee” (which, to be fair, would under most circumstances be an incontrovertible argument). It is worth asking ourselves what this tableau, viewed from the vantage of pagan antiquity, would have meant. A man of noble birth, representing the power of Rome, endowed with authority over life and death, confronted by a barbarous colonial of no name or estate, a slave of the empire, beaten, robed in purple, crowned with thorns, insanely invoking an otherworldly kingdom and some esoteric truth, unaware of either his absurdity or his judge’s eminence. Who could have doubted where, between these two, the truth of things was to be found? But the Gospel is written in the light of the resurrection, which reverses the meaning of this scene entirely. If God’s truth is in fact to be found where Christ stands, the mockery visited on him redounds instead upon the emperor, all of whose regal finery, when set beside the majesty of the servile shape in which God reveals Himself, shows itself to be just so many rags and briars. This slave is the Father’s eternal Word, whom God has vindicated, and so ten thousand immemorial certainties are unveiled as lies: the first become last, the mighty are put down from their seats and the lowly exalted, the hungry are filled with good things while the rich are sent empty away. Nietzsche was quite right to be appalled. Almost as striking, for me, is the tale of Peter, at the cock’s crow, going apart to weep. Nowhere in the literature of pagan antiquity, I assure you, had the tears of a rustic been regarded as worthy of anything but ridicule; to treat them with reverence, as meaningful expressions of real human sorrow, would have seemed grotesque from the perspective of all the classical canons of good taste. Those wretchedly subversive tears, and the dangerous philistinism of a narrator so incorrigibly vulgar as to treat them with anything but contempt, were most definitely signs of a slave revolt in morality, if not quite the one against which Nietzsche inveighed—a revolt, moreover, that all the ancient powers proved impotent to resist.

In a narrow sense, then, one might say that the chief offense of the Gospels is their defiance of the insights of tragedy—and not only because Christ does not fit the model of the well-born tragic hero. More important is the incontestable truth that, in the Gospels, the destruction of the protagonist emphatically does not restore or affirm the order of city or cosmos. Were the Gospels to end with Christ’s sepulture, in good tragic style, it would exculpate all parties, including Pilate and the Sanhedrin, whose judgments would be shown to have been fated by the exigencies of the crisis and the burdens of their offices; the story would then reconcile us to the tragic necessity of all such judgments. But instead comes Easter, which rudely interrupts all the minatory and sententious moralisms of the tragic chorus, just as they are about to be uttered to full effect, and which cavalierly violates the central tenet of sound economics: rather than trading the sacrificial victim for some supernatural benefit, and so the particular for the universal, Easter restores the slain hero in his particularity again, as the only truth the Gospels have to offer. This is more than a dramatic peripety. The empty tomb overturns all the “responsible” and “necessary” verdicts of Christ’s judges, and so grants them neither legitimacy nor pardon’. – David Bentley Hart, ‘God or Nothingness’ in I Am The Lord Your God: Christian Reflections on the Ten Commandments (ed. Carl E. Braaten and Christopher R. Seitz; Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2005), 64-66.

One thought on “David Bentley Hart on the rude interruption

  1. I’ve just read this article and it is my first brush with Bentley Hart. I found him breathtaking. Especially his description near the beginning about what Christians believed at Baptism – so much of that is missing from my tradition (the harrowing of Hell?). I’m attempting a theological exegesis of Psalm 24, so these kinds of considerations are important for me.

    Like

Comments welcome here

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s