An Interview with Dr. Al Truesdale on His New Book, The Lord of the Tragic

INTRODUCTION
Over the course of a lengthy career in theological education, much of it focused on teaching courses in the philosophy of religion, Christian thought, and Christian ethics, Dr. Al Truesdale has encouraged students to think on important and relevant questions vital to Christian faith, all the while pondering the questions that have especially vexed him.

Since his retirement from NTS in 2000, some of these questions have been addressed in several books he has written or edited on topics friendly to Wesleyan theology and Christian thought for The Foundry, which is the publishing arm of the Church of the Nazarene.

Now, Dr. Truesdale turns his attention to the Christian response to human suffering in a new book, Lord of the Tragic: The God Who Suffers With Us, published in April, 2024, by The Foundry. At age 83, he takes deep satisfaction in addressing this important topic.

The questions raised by tragedy and affliction have occupied Dr. Truesdale’s mind for much of his adult life, from his early years in the pastorate, while ministering to people in grief, to the seminary classroom, where he aided students seeking to reconcile brutal realities like the Holocaust, genocide, ethnic cleansing, life-threatening illness, and other forms of human suffering with their Christian faith. In his book, he says, “Tragedy plagues much of human existence. Why does it not receive more theological attention?”

One of the important areas where Dr. Truesdale does give attention is in helping Christians understand that their views of tragedy are more often derived from a worldview that is pagan rather than Christian. He says, “Christians should face tragedy as people marked by Easter Faith.”

Readers will appreciate that NTS professor, Dr. Thomas A. Noble, contributes the book’s foreword. Noble commends the book’s scholarship, range of discussion, and mature reflection.

In anticipation of the book’s recent publication, Dr. Truesdale agreed to an interview, which appears below.

QUESTION: AS A FORMER PASTOR, PROFESSOR, AND WRITER, YOU HAVE WRESTLED WITH THE VEXING NATURE OF TRAGEDY THROUGHOUT YOUR CAREER. WHY HAS THIS TOPIC CONSUMED YOUR ATTENTION?

While I rejoice in the gospel of our Lord, I am haunted by the tragedies—the challenges to faith that God’s people (and others) often encounter. For many Christians, dealing with tragedy is a more pressing problem than dealing with sin. Unless we can show how the Christian faith provides hope and good news for God’s people confronted by tragedy, no matter its magnitude, the gospel we proclaim is inadequate and incomplete.

That said, I do want to clarify that this book is not aiming to deal with macro-tragedies, such as the failed state of Haiti, which has been undergoing a series of crises since 2018 that have left much of the country in need of humanitarian assistance.

IN 2022, YOU WROTE AN IMPORTANT BOOK ON SIN FOR THE WESLEYAN THEOLOGICAL SERIES FOR THE FOUNDRY PUBLISHING. WHICH SUBJECT WAS MORE CHALLENGING TO WRITE ABOUT, SIN OR TRAGEDY?  

While each topic presents its own set of challenges, tragedy is a more difficult subject to tackle than sin. Nevertheless, failure to deal with tragedy from a Christian perspective strikes me as cowardice, a charge I don’t want to shoulder. I would rather try to address tragedy and fail, than not address the topic and leave it lurking in the dark shadows of the Christian faith.

IN TWO EARLIER BOOKS, YOU FOCUSED ON THE 1995 OKLAHOMA CITY BOMBING AND THE SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, ATTACK IN NEW YORK CITY. WHAT MAKES LORD OF THE TRAGIC DIFFERENT FROM THOSE TWO BOOKS?

While each of my earlier books addressed bad things that happen to God’s people, my primary focus was on theodicy, not tragedy. While these are related topics, their focus is different. Theodicy addresses the apparent conflict between the reality of evil in the world and belief in an all-powerful and all-loving God. Tragedy involves the injurious, disruptive, and often complex events in life where culpability is either absent or ambiguous, but where tragedy is nonetheless plaguing.

In Lord of the Tragic, I attempt to address tragedy from a distinctively Christian perspective, a perspective finally unlike that of any other faith tradition.

IN THEIR EAGERNESS TO AFFIRM GOD’S SOVEREIGNTY IN THE WORLD, CHRISTIANS CAN INFER THAT GOD IS THE AUTHOR OF TRAGEDY. HOW CAN WE HELP PEOPLE SEE THE THEOLOGICAL PROBLEMS POSED WITH THIS PERSPECTIVE AND CAN A WESLEYAN PERSPECTIVE CONTRIBUTE TO OUR UNDERSTANDING? 

Too often, and often completely unaware, Christians treat tragedy from a pagan perspective. Lord of the Tragic tries to correct this error. Many Christians deal with tragedy by using concepts of God imported from some form of pagan religion (or philosophy), or from folk religion far removed from the God to whom the Old and New Testaments bear witness.

The first step in dealing with tragedy, from a Christian perspective, is to make sure we are speaking about the creative, covenant-making God of steadfast love who became definitively incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth. So, Lord of the Tragic gives extensive attention to the covenant God of steadfast, incarnate love.

The book is predicated upon a Wesleyan understanding of God’s sovereignty, seen not as raw, arbitrary power, but as creative, powerful, vulnerable love. Paradoxically, for Wesleyans, God’s sovereignty is manifest in his incomprehensible, steadfast, vulnerable holy love, revealed in Jesus of Nazareth, and effected in the Church and the world through the Holy Spirit, to the Glory of God the Father.

One way to help Christians deal with tragedy is to help them understand the physical structure (or ecosystem) of the world in which we live. Another is to help them understand the reality and goodness of finite human freedom. We must also explain what it means to speak of God as “Creator.” Then, God’s own loving vulnerability must be explained, a vulnerability that placed God’s Son on the cross and, thereby, revealed God’s power. Finally, we must aid Christians in knowing how to live creatively “beyond” tragedy.

IN YOUR BOOK, YOU SHARE THAT ANGER OR COMPLAINT TOWARD GOD CAN BE AN “ACT OF FAITHFULNESS” FOR THE CHRISTIAN. CAN YOU COMMENT ON THIS AND WHAT SCHOLARSHIP DID YOU DRAW FROM TO DEVELOP THIS IDEA?  

Lord of the Tragic leans hard upon the scholarly work of Walter Bruggemann for understanding lament as an expression of trust and worship. It also relies upon the superlative work of Carol A. Newsom, an Old Testament scholar who wrote the section on Job for The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Volume III (1996 edition). As I say in the book, “God does not require politeness from those in distress. In ancient Israel and in the church today, God embraces full-throated candor from his covenant partners.”

HOW DO YOU SEE PASTORS, CHRISTIAN COUNSELORS, CHURCH LEADERS, AND OTHERS USING YOUR BOOK? 

The book was written for Christians who have either experienced tragedy in the past, or who are now experiencing tragedy. It was also written to assist parish clergy, especially in their preaching, teaching, and counseling, to better minister to those who have experienced tragedy and address their suffering.

DR. TRUESDALE, THANK YOU FOR SHARING ABOUT YOUR NEW BOOK.  

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Al Truesdale, PhD, is emeritus professor of Philosophy of Religion and Christian Ethics at Nazarene Theological Seminary. He is an alumnus of Nazarene Theological Seminary and Emory University. Truesdale has published and edited numerous books, including With Cords of Love: A Wesleyan Response to Religious Pluralism, Global Wesleyan Dictionary of Theology, and The Book of Saints (five volumes). He and his wife, Esther, live in the Lake Marion region of South Carolina.

Lord of the Tragic: The God Who Suffers with Us 
By Al Truesdale
Published on April 1, 2024, The Foundry Publishing
144 pages

 

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