Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Christianity and The Comic Vision

Christianity and The Comic Vision

You must follow me carefully. I shall have to controvert one or two ideas that are almost universally accepted. The geometry, for instance, they taught you at school is founded on a misconception.
                                                                                                            — The Time Machine

           The comic vision is not just incidental to a Christian worldview, and the Christian scriptures. The comic worldview is Christian.
            Hopefulness – the prospect of some future good, with expectation of that good – this pervades 2 Kings 6.24ff, even in the midst of God’s judgment. The word of the Lord is, after all, sure (7.16-20).
            This note of hopefulness is shot throughout the Christian worldview – even in a time of famine and siege, and even when the Almighty seems to have turned against us.

Job even speaks of the Almighty as his enemy, but he never doubts, at the back of his mind, that his enemy has some kind of a case which he does not understand. In a fine and famous blasphemy he says, "Oh, that mine adversary had written a book!" (31:35). It never really occurs to him that it could possibly be a bad book. He is anxious to be convinced, that is, he thinks that God could convince him. In short, we may say again that if the word optimist means anything (which I doubt), Job is an optimist. He shakes the pillars of the world and strikes insanely at the heavens; he lashes the stars, but it is not to silence them; it is to make them speak.[1]

            The biblical Christian worldview is comedic. It is, actually, the only consistently comedic worldview that man has ever known. Despite this fact, or maybe because of it, critics still assail Christianity as a dark and gloomy enterprise. They blame Christianity for a lack of humor in the world, and cast the Lord Jesus as a, “pale Galilean.”
            Against such critics I only have facts to offer.
            To what will you compare Christianity as a greater source of genuine comedy and laughter? Paganism, which preceded it, was an exhausting display of fatalistic dreariness. If you were a pagan, you lived under the constant dread of the fates, and an Oedipus like gloom. Paganism fell down weeping at the feet of Jesus.[2]
            It would be possible to defend the comedic Christian worldview based only on the contribution of Christianity to the world. The Christians have written both the greatest tragedies and the greatest comedies. Dante’s Divine Comedy is divine. Shakespeare’s comedies have been enjoyed worldwide, and will continue to be, until – and in –  the eschaton. Jane Austen’s wit is matchless. The greatest parody, Don Quixote, was also written by a Christian, and “the prince of wit,” Cervantes.  And what of Edmund Spencer, Samuel Johnson, Christopher Marlowe, Pascal, George MacDonald, Daniel Defoe, Jonathon Swift, Lewis Carroll,  Mark Twain,[3] GK Chesterton, and Charles Schultz  -- what would the world be like without the unique comedic timing which each of these men contributed?
            However, the best way to defend the comedic Christian vision is to state that vision. Christianity is comedic in that it has a hope-filled stance toward reality. The universe is here by the whim of its benevolent creator. Man fell into tragedy, but that same creator, out of love, moved to change the arch of the story from tragedy to comedy. He dispatched his only son to bring redemption, and ultimately the happiest of happy endings: the new heavens and new earth wherein dwells righteousness. When it comes to a comedic vision two things are needed: redemption and a ‘happy ending.’ Christianity not only has that vision, it gave the world that vision.
            It will not do, as some have said, to say that Christianity is gloomy because of the cross. Yes, the cross is the moment of ultimate tragedy, but this tragedy only compliments and heightens the sheer comedic revelry of the larger story.  We cannot enjoy comedy without a corresponding sense of tragedy. The one enriches the other. The fact that Christianity preaches the greatest tragedy – the crucifixion of the innocent son of God – does not lessen, but actually increases, its comedic vision. This is especially so when we consider that the crucifixion was not mere tragedy. It was tragedy moving toward comedy. Jesus’ death was redemptive. It accomplished a joyful end, “to save his people from their sins.” Far from being pure tragedy, the cross demonstrates God’s redeeming power:

God's redeeming power that evokes laughter from believers is seen most powerfully in the "folly" of the redemptive work of Christ (1 Cor. 1-2): the glorious Creator becoming a baby and growing up to be a carpenter; the Creator of beauty becoming one who had nothing in his appearance to attract us to him; the source of all joy becoming the Man of Sorrows; this cursed and crucified Holy One, sustaining the universe as he makes his triumphal entry on a donkey, and who will one day return as a wrathful lamb. His life conjures images of Don Quixote chasing windmills and dreaming the impossible dream, except that Jesus does not die at the end—well, he does, but he is resurrected again—and all our hopes and dreams come true in him.[4] 

            Furthermore, the Christian narrative doesn’t end with the crucifixion of our Lord. After the cross comes resurrection, and then consummation. To read some writers, you’d think the gospels, and Christianity as a whole, end at the cross.
            A further word is needed on biblical Christianity. By that, I mean the truest expression of Christianity, i.e. the reformed faith. J. Gresham Machen was correct to say, “consistent Christianity is the easiest Christianity to defend, and that consistent Christianity – the only thoroughly Biblical Christianity – is found in the Reformed Faith.”[5]
            Christianity, the only true source of lasting comedy, has been critiqued for lacking comedy, but reformed Christianity has been especially critiqued.
            This is the impression in people’s minds, but once again, when we check the facts, and actually look into the details, we find the impression is all wrong.
            Historically, the reformed faith has been a boon to the comedic vision of a culture. The reformation traces its roots back to the scriptures. Shakespeare wrote in Elizabethan England some 60 years after the reformation. He was born the year John Calvin died. It has been argued, rightly, that the reformation unleashed a flood of creativity on the world that has not been seen since. The great historical preachers with a notable sense of “humor” are almost all connected to the reformed faith: Augustine, Martin Luther, John Calvin,[6] George Whitfield, Rowland Hill, Charles Spurgeon, A.W. Pink, John G. Patton, and in our day, Tim Keller. The puritans, again contrary to popular opinion, also serve as a rich suppository of wit, satire, humor, and hope.[7]
            In addition, Reformed Christianity, rightly held, highlights the following elements of a genuinely comic worldview:

1) Free-ness of God: Comedy is characterized by freedom. No one is more free than God.
2) Against Legalism: Harsh rules stifle human life and laughter.
3) Providence of God: Knowing God is sovereign enables us to relax, and enjoy.
4) New Heavens and New Earth: The earth will also be redeemed. Humor will be redeemed.
5) Salvation by Grace: Being loved and accepted freely enables us to be genuine, and laugh.
6) Free, undeserved mercy: This leads to humility—nothing humbles like reformed theology. The comedic perspective requires humility.

            So, when critics say the Bible is humorless –  what they mean is that it doesn’t have their kind of humor: the frivolous and irreverent humor of the world. This kind of criticism can only come from a worldly person who does accept a priori of the Bible’s view of life. If by humor we mean holy wit, thoughtful and sanctified word play – then the scriptures are full of it. The humor of the Bible  is not the lowbrow, quick, debasing variety. This humor is of a higher, and more thoughtful kind. Thus, in 2 Kings 6.24ff we find humor, but it requires thoughtfulness. It requires us to put the pieces together. The humor of the Bible is, in short, the kind that makes men smarter.

[1] G.K. Chesteron, Introduction to the Book of Job, available in ebook:
[2] For a full discussion on Christianity as the ‘joyful’ savior of pale paganism see, Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.
[3] I realize that many would not count Twain among the Christians, but the fairest reading of him is a disillusioned Christian. In his autobiography he speaks of Christianity as “our religion.”
[4] Erik Thoennes, Laughing through Tears: The Redemptive Role of Humor in a Fallen World (Presbyterion 2007, Vol. 33.2) 81.
[5] David B. Calhoun, Princeton Seminary: Volume 2: The Majestic Testimony, 1869-1929 (Edinburgh: The Banner or Truth Trust, 1996), 226.
[6] No one has more bad press as a grim theologian than John Calvin. However, when we turn to the actual man, he said things like this, commenting on John 14.12, “All that (Jesus) had hitherto told his disciples about himself, so far as it regarded them, was temporal; and therefore, if he had not added this clause, the consolation would not have been complete; particularly since our memory is so short, when we are called to consider the gifts of God. On this subject it is unnecessary to go to others for examples; for, when God has loaded us with every kind of blessings, if he pause for fourteen days, we fancy that he is no longer alive.” Bishops who think they imitate Christ by breathing on their ordinands are not "like actors whose gestures have some art and meaning," he jeered, "but like apes, which imitate everything wantonly and without any discrimination" (Institutes 4.19.29).
[7] See Leland Ryken’s Worldly Saints

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