Uncloaking the Proud: The Power of Comedy

‘I do not like seriousness. I think it is irreligious.  The man who takes everything seriously is the man who makes an idol of everything: he bows down to wood and stone until his limbs are as rooted as the roots of the tree or his head as fallen as the stone sunken by the roadside.’ – G. K. Chesterton[1]

Seriousness—in the guise of solemnity—too often seems to follow religion like an insidious infection.  To complement dark suits and starched collars, many believers put on their best cloak of spiritual earnestness and moral intensity when they go to worship.  Though very few people today enforce Sabbath rules like they did in the Victorian era, Charles Neaves’ jesting description of faith is still humorous because it still resonates:

We zealots, made up of stiff clay,
The sour-looking children of sorrow,
While not over-jolly today,
Resolve to be wretched tomorrow.
We can’t for a certainty tell
What mirth may molest us on Monday;
But, at least, to begin the week well,
Let us all be unhappy on Sunday.[2]

Sunday should be the most joyous and celebratory of all days for Christians, and yet somehow it has become encumbered with an undue gravity.

Comedy can help liberate us from the bonds of seriousness.  If seriousness is, as Chesterton defines it, ‘a natural trend or lapse into taking oneself gravely,’ then levity also can have one of the most important theological functions—it can undermine pride and cultivate humility.[3]  The need for some sort of religion apparently began because one man and one woman thought they could ‘become like gods,’ yet ironically religion itself frequently produces the most prideful people (example par excellence: the Pharisees).   The subversive and surprising power of comedy can reveal truths in situations where sincere arguments might only further entrench pride.

Comedy also helps foster what Emily Dickinson calls ‘nimble believing’—it keeps faith fresh and fit.[4]  Whereas seriousness often emerges from fear, wholesome humour springs from hopeful confidence.  We can acknowledge the comedy of our errors only if we aren’t frightened about what other people might think of us.  Letting go of seriousness helps make us spiritually light and nimble, qualities that then also aid us in times of tragedy by helping us to avoid unnecessary concerns and to keep things in perspective.

Tragedy happens, and sometimes it even seems like the sombre seriousness of tragedy is the prevailing motif of human life.  But as Karl Barth notes, ‘he suffered that we may laugh again.’[5] In the end, comedy is greater than tragedy because it encompasses tragedy within itself yet still finds room for laughter and play.  Theology that believes this should make comedy integral to its enterprise.

Perhaps all theology books should begin with a knock-knock joke.

Danny Gabelman teaches English at Eastbourne College in East Sussex.  He completed his PhD on George MacDonald’s fairytale levity at the University of St Andrews in the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts.  His thesis is being published by Baylor UP later this year under the title, George MacDonald: Divine Carelessness and Fairytale Levity.

[1] ‘On Seriousness’, in The Uses of Diversity (London: Methuen, 1920)

[2] by Charles Lord Neaves, ‘A Lyric for Saturday Night’

[3]Orthodoxy (London: John Lane, 1927)

[4]The Letters of Emily Dickinson (London: Dover, 2011)

[5]Ethics, trans. Geoffrey Bromiley (London: T & T Clark, 1992)

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