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The Trial
by Franz Kafka

     Franz Kafka’s ​​​​​​The Trial is a genuine classic in Western literature. Not because its ideas are fresh and challenging, but because it so captures the mood of European civilization at the beginning of the 20th Century - a mood that has carried over into the 21st Century as well. Millions of persons who have never read The Trial are neverthe-less vaguely aware of its plot.

     Kafka himself is a venerated giant among European intellectuals; indeed, his name has been transformed into an adjective, “Kafkaesque” - and has become “common coin” circulating not only on the elevated pinnacles of academia, but within “popular” culture as well.


     At the turn of the 20th Century, European Christianity was completely bankrupt. It’s vigor was long spent. It had ceased being a source of passion; it was no longer the hub around which European thought revolved; it was no longer the lodestar of European intellectuals. Its demise is usually traced back to the French Revolution in 1789; but the seedbed of its demise is found in the Enlightenment at least seventy years earlier - and back still further to the horrifying disillusionment spawned by the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) fought between Catholics and Protestants during the mid-17th Century - a war that wrought as much devastation throughout Europe as did World War II - and all in the name of Christ. Christianity never recovered its credibility among European in-

Franz Kafka

tellectuals following the Thirty Years War; and though it thrived in America, in Europe it degenerated into a pathetic caricature of the robust faith of the 16th and 17th Centuries, when whole armies would march to battle singing Christian hymns.

     Soren Kierkegaard was probably the only first-rank European intellectual during the entire 19th Century who found himself seri-ously challenged by Christianity - and who found in Christianity the sole source of his intellectual fervor. None emerged in the 20th Century - with the one possible exception of Jacques Maritain, who is more a product of the 19th Century than the 20th - and who casts a pale shadow alongside Kierkegaard.

     At the end of the 19th Century - standing on the cusp of the 20th - European intellectuals were taking for granted the collapse of Christianity; still, very few were willing to write its epitaph - to openly acknowledge that it no longer commanded their respect - that it was no longer the engine driving their quest for knowledge and truth. Finally, Nietzsche did - declaring that “God was dead”1 - mean-ing God was no longer relevant.

     It’s against this backdrop that Franz Kafka, the son of a respectable middle-class Jewish shop-
keeper living in Prague, frail, suffering from tuberculosis, and terribly introverted, wrote The Trial.
It is not easy reading; it’s disconcerting, opaque, and relentlessly depressing. Why? Because the
truth it explores is guilt and the fear of judgment - but without any hope of forgiveness - without
any hope of God’s intervening grace. In short, though Kafka and his contemporaries consciously
banished God from their discourse, from their journals, from their art, and from their literature,
they still found themselves fixated on the very truths listed in any basic Christian or Jewish cate-
chism - sin, guilt, condemnation, and the fear of impending judgment.

Franz Kafka

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     The Trial’s central figure is a mid-level bank supervisor whose name is Josef K.  His last name is
never revealed - and that, no doubt, to stress the totally nondescript nature of his life - its complete
anonymity. K.’s life is distressingly routine - and its meaning is found only in whatever significance
that routine furnishes.

      One spring day, just before breakfast, two “warders” knock on K.’s door. They inform him that
he’s under arrest. K., of course, demands to know why, but the warders retort, “We’re not author-
ized to tell you that.” The warders then introduce K. to an inspector - who has accompanied them to
K.’s apartment and is waiting in the next room to conduct an interrogation. The interrogation, how-
ever, is a farce - because the inspector himself has not been made privy to the cause of K.’s arrest - only that it has been duly sanc-tioned by the proper authority, the identity of which, like the reason for the arrest, is never revealed. Following the interrogation, the inspector asks K. if he’s planning on getting to work on time. K. is dumb-struck: “How can I go to work, if I’m under arrest?”  “Ah, I see.” replies the Inspector, “You have misunderstood me. You are under arrest, certainly; but that need not hinder you from going about your business. Nor will you be prevented from leading your ordinary life.” K is simply told to report to “The Court” periodically - without being told the exact location of the Court or the appropriate time to schedule a hearing.

     At first K. finds himself wrestling with the apparent absurdity of his arrest - and isn’t able to ascribe much significance to it. Even-tually, however, K realizes that his arrest is fraught with serious consequences, and that he needs to begin preparing an effective de-fense. But that’s impossible - because, of course, he has never been told the reason for his arrest. How can he prepare a defense against charges that have never been disclosed to him?

     Gradually, however, the specific cause of his arrest becomes less and less important to K. It’s not that he’s guilty of some specific offense, it’s that he is guilty - cosmically guilty. Guilt is part of his DNA. Eventually, K. surrenders to his guilt and helps to facilitate his own execution.

     The Trial, as it turns out, is not about K.’s guilt or innocence; that has
already been determined. It’s about his execution. That’s why the charges
against K. are never revealed: they’re no longer germane. That’s why K.’s
arrest seems so irrational - why, though he’s under arrest, he’s still permit-
ted to carry on with his life with little or no hindrance: K. is already impri-
soned: life is a holding cell housing the condemned - a mere interval be-
tween a sentence already pronounced and an execution about to be car-
ried out - the very truth found in Romans 1:18a; and, so Kafka insists, what
we do during that interval is meaningless; we can do whatever we want
with it. It doesn’t matter. It has no bearing on our eventual fate. Our fate
has already been determined. Our “trial” has already occurred. That’s also
why the judicial system seems so irrational: K. is expecting a judicial sys-
tem that’s designed to guarantee him a fair trial, not a judicial system that
presumes his guilt and that’s designed instead to help him embrace that
guilt and facilitate his own execution.

     Franz Kafka’s The Trial is a wholly Biblical account of mankind’s plight - only minus God and the forgiveness God provides in Jesus Christ. Life is indeed an interval lying between a verdict of guilt already rendered and a sentence of death about to be executed. But Romans 1:16 and 17 tell us that the interval, contrary to Kafka’s contention, is not meaningless: it’s the time God has set aside to call us to our senses, to get us to confess our guilt and to seize the pardon he’s graciously offering. Kafka’s truth is Biblical truth; but, absent God’s mercy,     


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  1. Not that God had ceased to exist - which unfortunately is what the phrase is commonly taken to mean.  The only point that Nietzsche wanted to make in coining the phrase “God is dead” is that God’s existence was no longer of any concern to him or his colleagues.  And Nietzsche was right.  Not only was God “dead” among European intellectuals, he was also “dead” among rank-and-file Europeans as well.  Church attendance was minimal at the close of the 19th Century and passion completely absent.  Europe had become a religious wasteland.  All Nietzsche did was acknowledge that fact.    
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