Comedy and Christianity

8 October 2017

(Written by Revd Martin Booth, this article first appeared in the Rochester Link Newspaper, October 2017, and is their copyright.)

Anyone familiar with Umberto Eco's brilliant The Name of the Rose will know that - spoiler alert - the plot revolves around whether laughter is sinful. It was a serious theological question much debated by medieval monks. Just as certain forms of entertainment, including ribaldry and laughter, have been banned down the ages by various christian groups, both among themselves, and even imposed upon society. This emphasis on taking one's life and faith seriously stems, doubtless, from particular interpretations of scripture. For example, we find throughout the Hebrew bible many references to laughter which are clearly derisory; designed to pour scorn on people, events and vainglorious ambition - both by God and others (e.g. 2 Ch 30.10, Pss 2.4, 37.13, 80.6). The most famous pouring of scorn in the Hebrew scriptures can be heard from Abraham and Sarah when God tells them that, despite their advanced age, they are to have a child. (Gen. 17.17, 18.12). Then we hear The Writer of Ecclesiastes telling us "...I said of laughter 'it is mad', and of pleasure 'what use is it?'"(Eccl. 2.2). Although this might be to do with what one might call 'immoderate laughter' that is to say: laughter for laughter's sake; loud roaring laughter, born of drunkenness or ignorance or foolishness? The Writer goes on to say '...for like the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of fools...'(7.6) Meanwhile, in the Gospels, we hear the professional mourners mocking Jesus' claim that the young girl is not dead but sleeping. (Mk 5.40). On the other hand, once Isaac (meaning: he laughs) is born, Sarah says 'God has brought laughter for me; everyone who hears will laugh with me.' And, as always, we should leave the final word on this matter with Jesus himself: '...blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh' (Lk 6.21).

So we have, on the one hand, laughter in the wrong context - derision, disbelief, foolishness - being unhealthy, while on the other hand, laughter in the context of redemption and healing - being valuable and valued.

One might wonder, of course, did Jesus himself laugh during his earthly ministry? Now, there's a question. Any scholar worth her or his salt will tell you that one cannot argue from an absence of evidence. Just because none of the Gospels record Jesus laughing does not mean Jesus never laughed. It's quite possible that he did. Not least because, for humans, laughter is often an involuntary act when confronted with absurdity or moments of joy. If we believe Jesus was both fully God and fully human, therefore, denying that Jesus ever laughed, means we deny him one part of his humanity. Then, of course, there's the argument that God has a sense of humour. To use a less empirical argument from one of Woody Allen's most memorable quotes: 'If you want to make God laugh - tell him your plans'.

I like to think that Ecclesiastes can be read as a wryly humorous account of life and life's complexity. I read it, as if it were written by someone with a great sense of humour gently mocking the doom-and-gloom merchants.

Similarly, much of what Christ says and does in scripture can suggest he had a great sense of humour. Take, for example, the rich young man (Mt 19.16-26). The earnest young fellow - clearly keen on getting into heaven - approaches the Teacher and asks what else he can do? Jesus loves him for his earnestness. Smiling, he advises the young man what else to do. "Yes-yes," says the young man "but that's not enough - what else can I do?" Can you see the twinkle in Jesus' eyes? "Well then, sell everything you have..." Christ's point being that we can't buy heaven. I imagine the young man got the point from Jesus' smile. But then, I can't argue from absence of evidence. Importantly, though, we should read what happens next. The Disciples stand goggle-eyed and open-mouthed. 'Goodness,' they say, 'then it's impossible! Look what we've given up - yet that's still not enough!' And that's exactly right. It is impossible for a human to earn their place in the Kingdom of Heaven for: 'only God can do this," says Jesus.

To return to our theme, we know that God loves everything God has made. As with all of Creation, things can be used or abused. This, surely must include laughter and comedy generally. So let us explore briefly the possibility that comedy is, indeed, God-given.

What does comedy do? Well, among other things, it highlights the absurdity of life; it reveals truth; it rejoices in naivety and innocence; and it speaks truth to power.

How about Christ? Well, he highlights humankind's absurdities, he reveals The Truth; he commends innocence and simplicity certainly when it comes to faith and belief; and he speaks truth to power.

Of course, the comparisons are not exact. But it must be admitted, there are some considerable similarities. The main difference, however, is that comedy, in many ways, once it has spoken, leaves us still with the chaos - the non-sense. Christ, thankfully, once he has spoken, makes sense of things. He brings order out of the chaos and the absurdity and the non-sense.

Life, at least on the face of it, is absurd. Comedy tells us we're not alone thinking this; and as a result our sense of insecurity in a topsy-turvey world is momentarily eased. By realising we are not alone in the midst of the absurdities of life, comedy creates community. In the created community the individual feels that they belong; no bad thing. Comedy therefore can be seen as an reflection of how, in Christ, equally assuring us we are not alone in the topsy-turvey absurdities, we become a community, and, more, we are loved and blessed. The difference however, is this.  While comedy merely satisfies - albeit temporarily, Christ sanctifies - eternally.

[1] All quotes from the New Oxford Annotated Bible, 3rd Edition, OUP, Oxford 2001

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