The Christian worldview can be characterized as fundamentally comic. This is not simply because the Christian “narrative” starts in sin and ends in salvation, reflecting the ancient definition of comedy. The Christian attitude toward the world also makes him receptive toward and perceptive of humor, because he realizes that nothing in the world is ultimately to be taken seriously.
“Christ, too, though he is the wisdom of the Father, was made something of a fool himself in order to help the folly of mankind…” —Erasmus, Praise of Folly
Renaissance humanist Desiderius Erasmus wrote his famous satire Praise of Folly while staying in the London home of his good friend and fellow humanist Thomas More, who must have been most simulating company. A “declamation” delivered by a personified Folly, the work takes aim at human foibles in general and at many forces in 16th-century society, both in and outside the church. All this is presented under the guise of an encomium to folly, arguing ironically for its many benefits to life and society. We are never completely sure whether it is really Folly or Erasmus talking, and how seriously we should take anything she says. The work is full of ironies wrapped in ironies.
Although much of the book is purely entertaining, even flippant, Folly masks a serious purpose which is gradually revealed, coming into full view in the final section. Here the irony dissipates, and the constant (and, to my taste, tiresome at times) stream of erudite classical allusions that filled the earlier part of the book slows to a trickle. These allusions will be baffling to most modern-day readers and even in Erasmus’ day were perhaps only understood by an elite circle of humanists. We may not share Erasmus’ deep knowledge of classical literature, but many of us share his Christianity. The last few chapters of the book belong to Christ and faith. The goal toward which the book has been steadily working finally comes into focus.
Erasmus shows true evangelical fervor here. Folly points out that Christ denounced the scribes and Pharisees—the wise—and extolled children, the simple, and the humble. Even when it came time to choose an animal on which to ride into the Holy City, he chose a donkey, even though “he could have safely been mounted on a lion.” He himself is described as the Lamb—like the sheep, not a wise animal but a meek and gentle one. He preached using homely metaphors, and his acceptance of death on a cross was the ultimate “folly.” Thus, everything Jesus did contradicted worldly wisdom. St. Paul likewise contrasts the wisdom of men with the “folly” of God: “God’s folly is greater than human wisdom”; “the cross is folly to those who are perishing”; “God chose to save the world through folly.”
Like their Master, Christians scorn the honors and rewards of this life in favor of something invisible that is beyond this world. This, of course, seems like folly to humanity at large. In the Acts of the Apostles, the disciples were thought to be drunk because of their sudden loquaciousness in other languages. Peter replied it was instead the outpouring of the Holy Spirit; the “new wine” they were filled with was the joy of Christ. Erasmus too evokes phenomena of “speaking in tongues” and mystical ecstasy which have been observed among some Christian believers, including at the hour of death, and which reflect their “crazed” love of God. Human love causes lovers to do foolish things; so much more, divine love. These peoples’ actions appear to us as madness, but they have in fact reached a higher consciousness beyond earthly and bodily reality (here Erasmus’ Platonism shows). They are having a foretaste of the beatific vision.
The idea of “Christian folly” and the “Christian fool” raises the question of Christianity’s relationship to laughter and the comic. We know that the classical definition of comedy was a story with a happy ending, representing the rise in fortune of a central character. More modernly, we have come to understand comedy as the funny and amusing. Yet the two senses are not unrelated. A happy and blessed turn of events would naturally provoke mirth, joy, and laughter. Similarly, Christian faith provokes wonder and delight at the superabundant love and grace of God. According to Aristotle, comedy dealt with human weaknesses and foibles and showed human beings as worse than they are, for the purpose of social correction. Here we find a parallel with the Christian insistence on the reality of Original Sin and the need to reform the soul. Yet, true to comic form, Christianity is about forgiveness and second chances. Man is not doomed by his hamartia, his tragic flaw.
A more recent writer who has dealt with the relationship between Christianity and the comic is theologian Peter J. Leithart. In his book Deep Comedy, he argues that comedy is the Christian genre par excellence (see Dante) and that the Christian worldview can be characterized as fundamentally comic. This is not simply because the Christian “narrative” starts in sin and ends in salvation, reflecting the ancient definition of comedy. The Christian attitude toward the world also makes him receptive toward and perceptive of humor, because he realizes that nothing in the world is ultimately to be taken seriously. The angels, Chesterton reminds us, can fly because they take themselves lightly. One theory of comedies suggests that they end in a katastasis which is the equivalent of the tragic catharsis, in this case inducing a sense of humorous relief and relaxation of concern. In the Christian faith, we realize that our debt has been paid in full, and grace abounds.
Dr. Leithart mentions the interesting medieval custom of risus paschalis, in which priests introduced jokes and funny stories in their sermons during the Easter season to make the congregation laugh. There was a theological idea that in raising Jesus from the dead God played the ultimate trick on the forces of darkness—an idea that comes to mind on those rare occasions when Easter falls on April Fools’ Day.
The classical pagan worldview was deeply tragic: History progressed in a constant decline from a golden age. In some ancient comedies, Dr. Leithart points out, we are meant to laugh at foolish characters with the laughter of mockery. In Christianity, by contrast, we are obliged to regard other people as fellow sinners and sufferers, to be pitied rather than despised. What is more, Christianity created what Dr. Leithart calls deep comedy, in which the story not only ends happily but with superabundant happiness. We don’t simply end up where we started from—in a restored Golden Age or Garden of Eden—but receive instead more than we ever could have imagined: the Kingdom of Heaven.
Recall for a moment the encounter of Jesus’ disciples with the risen Lord on the road to Emmaus. The three disciples are shrouded in melancholy. Full of dashed hopes after the Crucifixion, they yet can’t make sense of recent reports from the faithful women about an empty tomb. One might say that the tragic worldview has come crashing down on their heads. St. Luke tells us that while talking to the wayfaring stranger (who is actually Jesus) about their experiences they “stood still, looking sad.” At a certain point Jesus turns to them and says, “O foolish men…” and goes on to explain how his death fulfilled the messianic prophesies.
The moment, and the episode as a whole, sums up the passage from the tragic to the comic, and includes folly in the bargain (as Erasmus did not fail to notice). The disciples’ failure to recognize Jesus can be seen as comic, too, and emblematic of their larger obliviousness. Human foolishness, however—which thinks itself to be plain common sense—differs from divine folly that is really wisdom. Erasmus plays upon this duality: self-proclaimed wisdom that is really foolishness, and apparent foolishness that is actually a higher wisdom. The disciples were sad, but needlessly so; the risen Christ was right there, walking with them. Their melancholy was shattered that evening, when Jesus’ gesture of breaking bread caused the veil to be lifted from their eyes. From then until Pentecost, their lives must have been a festival of wonder and joy.
It seems to me that the injunction Christ gave them before his passion, “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world,” could serve as the license for mirth in the Christian. One should show due sorrow for sin—one’s own sins and the sins of humanity in general—and for the sufferings Christ endured. Aside from that, the faith is, or should be, all joy and light. By rights, Christians should be the least solemn people on earth. Banal routine, jadedness, cynicism, and a mere stoic resignation to the drudgery of our existence are contrary to the Christian spirit; they should, at any rate, be banished outside of the church doors.
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The featured image is “The Nine Muses – Thalia (Comedy)” (1771) by Johann Heinrich Tischbein (1722–1789) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. It has been brightened for clarity.