In a famous essay, “Hamlet: The Prince or The Poem?” C S Lewis describes the various efforts critics over the centuries have made to understand what is arguably Shakespeare’s greatest play.
They have, Lewis said, rightly identified that in the play there is greatness and mystery.
“Their error, on my view, was to put the mystery in the wrong place – in Hamlet’s motives rather than in that darkness which enwraps Hamlet and the whole tragedy and all who read and watch it. It is a mysterious play in the sense of being a play about mystery.”
The tragedy in Norway will be endlessly dissected by columnists and scholars seeking to interpret the chilling wickedness of one man’s actions.
They will look at his own psychology, at the right-wing ideology that fed his delusions, the state of relations between immigrants and Norway’s native population and any number of other issues.
Perhaps all this needs to be done, and certainly column inches need to be filled. But in the face of such appalling tragedy, there is a fundamental sense of wrongness, injustice and spiritual dislocation that does not respond to explanations of any kind.
This is an act that provokes fear, rejection and horror; it is a dark mystery, and we do no one any favors if we try to shed light on it.
Crucifixion, whether it is one man on a cross 2,000 years ago or a nation on a green island almost two weeks ago, is an outrage to our moral and spiritual being. It is not to be excused or understood.
The way forward is through resurrection, not enlightenment.
The churches of Norway – by some counts the most secular country in Europe, and perhaps in the world – have a hard road to tread.
They will need to find a language in which to speak to their people of hope, of the eternal love of God and even of forgiveness.
But before then, they will have to enter the pain of their country, offering the crucified Christ as a match for the evil their nation has suffered.
We are all of us, perhaps, in our so-civilized West, too ready with answers to questions and solutions to problems. Job’s comforters sat in silence with him for seven days and seven nights before they spoke a word.
Silence does not necessarily mean there is nothing to say.
It can mean that there is too much to say, and that we need to listen for the one true voice amid the many.