Why Christians Need Comedy

I love comedy.  And by ‘comedy’, I don’t mean a happy ending; I mean humour, funny, jokes, hilarity, ridiculous, etc.  If you ask me what movie or TV show I want to watch, with a few exceptions, my preference will probably include someone like Jon Stewart, Adam Sandler, Chris Farley, Jim Carrey, Jeff Daniels, Steve Carrell, and maybe even Will Farrell.  Comedies are wonderful: we laugh at them, we laugh at ourselves, we re-quote them again and again to the same effect.  I love comedy, but do I need comedy?

I suppose that ‘need’ is a rather strong word, but it is not, in this context, too strong.  Sure, I don’t need comedy to survive.  If I had to pick two things to take with me to a deserted island, one of them would not be Will Farrell’s Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy.  But perhaps I need comedy in a less severe way.  Perhaps comedy does things that I, as a Christian, consider to be a valuable component of the spiritual life.  Wait, spiritual life?  Can we talk about something so light-hearted and fun in such a serious manner?

I have recently become enamored with the book Christ and Apollo (1960) by Catholic theologian and literary critic William Lynch (1908-87).  This book is an incredibly insightful, thought-provoking and wide-ranging exploration of the human imagination (or what Lynch more narrowly refers to as the ‘literary imagination’).  His main point throughout the book is the heart and centre of the imagination is the finite and particular world, into which it explores and from which it gains insight.  He makes the provocative and interesting claim, which I don’t have time to explore here, that Christianity is very valuable for our imaginative endeavours because of the value that it places on the particular.  What I do want to share with you is his suggestion that comedy is the imaginative form par excellence because it exposes, like no other form can, our concrete and finite reality.

Lynch contrasts comedy and tragedy as the two ends of a telescope.  Tragedy looks at life through the narrow end where the human condition is writ large, and so we weep for its frailty and death.  Comedy, however, looks at life through the wide end where the human appears small and insignificant, and so we laugh at its foibles and awkwardness.

Intuitively, I have often felt that tragedy is more important than comedy.  But, says Lynch, “the way of comedy taxes the imagination and the whole soul more than does tragedy, and requires even more courage as a way to God.  It is a more terrible way, requiring a greater ascesis, requiring more faith in the finite, the pure finite, as an entrance thereinto (129).”  But why should this be so?  Why should comedy be more terrible than tragedy?  It is because comedy grants us no self-delusions, no self-aggrandizements, and it shows us who we really are.  In short, it keeps us humble, and humility is no easy thing at all.

This is why, I think, Christians need comedy.  It confronts us with our greatest fear, the fear of being human and all the limitations that accompany such a gift.  It shapes our love for one another and for God.  It cuts through our visions of human greatness, which distort our ideas about who is worthy of our love and who is not.  It reminds us that God’s love for us is a grace, and that, even in our silliness and shame, God calls us sons and daughters.  Lynch summarizes for us:

[comedy’s] whole function is to be a perpetual and funny, if disconcerting, reminder that it is the limited concrete which is the path to insight and salvation. (133)

So, the next time you peruse some comedies on Netflix, remember: you need comedy.  Its hardly a laughing matter.

Fair Use Justification: The above image is considered to be used fairly because the post comments on Christ and Apollo.

Author

  • Jim Watkins is the assistant editor and a regular contributor at Transpositions. Originally, Jim is from southern California and southeastern Texas, but sometimes he feels most at home in the landscape and coffee shops of the Pacific Northwest. He met his wife Emily at Wheaton College in Illinois, where he studied Studio Art (concentration in painting). For his PhD research, he is examining the relationship between divine and human creativity from the perspective of divine kenosis.

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32 Comments

  1. says: Danny

    Nice post Jim. Right up my alley. Comedy fits in nicely with kenosis too, doesn’t it? Any additional thoughts on how comedy relates to kenosis? Or the age old question of whether or not Jesus laughed or told jokes? Chesterton of course says that Jesus’ mirth was the divine secret that he couldn’t show to us because we couldn’t take it. Hope all is well in St Andrews

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Thanks for your comment, Danny. Have you read Lynch’s book? I was actually thinking of you when I got to his section on comedy. Unfortunately, I don’t believe he mentions Chesterton.

      I think there are a lot of connections between comedy and kenosis, and Lynch does specifically make this connection, but he does not dwell a great deal on biblical literature in his book. When I read your comment, what sprang to my mind immediately is Paul’s notion of the foolishness of the cross. There is a sense in which the whole of Christ’s life subverts and undermines an inflated sense of human self-importance and pride. I think especially of the way that the beattitudes radically re-orient human values. In a sense, they turn our expectations upside down, as good comedy often does. The concept of kenosis revels in a seeming paradox where the loss of self is actually the gain of self, and perhaps there is a connection to be made here with comedy as a literary form. These thoughts are little more than a rambling, but if you have anything to add, I would love to hear it. Thanks!

      1. says: Danny

        I think you are exactly right, Jim. Comedy is all about inversions and extreme reversals–bringing high things low and low things high or bringing high things into association with low things (my favourite image of this is Bottom and Titania). Christ’s kenosis did all these things and Christians are likewise to be ‘fools for Christ’.

        It’s been a while since I read the book, but I remember thinking that Lynch was great with the descending motion (of both comedy and tragedy) but not so great at talking about the ascending motion–the katharsis of tragedy and the jubilance of comedy. To use my terminology, he seems to be more interested in the gravity of comedy (and tragedy) than in its levity. He always seemed to be ‘grounding’ things in the finite. But to my mind, kenosis also necessarily includes the uplifting motion (the whole logical progression of Philippians 2) and to get permanently stuck in the descending motion is not actually Christian (which is why–as a further sidenote–I think you shouldn’t downplay happy endings either). But perhaps I am mis-remembering Lynch’s argument.

        Here I will forcefully stop myself. Thanks again for writing!

        1. says: Jim Watkins

          Thanks for these comments, Danny. I think your reflection on Lynch’s book – that he focuses more on gravity than upon levity – is correct. And I was certainly emphasizing that aspect of comedy in my post.

          And you are also right about the importance of the upward movement, and of happy endings. Just to be clear, in my second sentence I separated, perhaps with unfortunate consequence, my discussion about comedy from happy endings in an attempt to draw the reader toward the funny and ridiculous. But, of course, happy endings are an important part of what we typically mean by comedy.

          Incidentally, when Lynch does discuss the ‘upward movement’ he often calls it ‘insight.’ This word even seems to draw the reader again to the finite, which the imagination penetrates and sees into.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Hi Elizabeth,

      I assume you’re talking about the Monty Python film. I’m sure there are lots of issues to talk about there, but could you be more specific? Thanks!

      1. says: Elizabeth Roberts

        Yes, I meant the Monty Python film. It was really funny – I still cannot watch the film after dozens of viewings over the years without laughing eg at the scene where Michael Palin is a Roman with a difficulty pronouncing his ‘r’s, and the ‘what have the Roman done for us’ scene. As it happens, my daughter, baptised by the 20th century christian martyr, Alexander Men www.alexandermenconference.com – do come everyone – is a standup comedian www.abiroberts.com. What other commentators on this site seem to have missed is that many funny films eg trains boats and planes have a christian message – it doesn’t all have to be about the bible.

  2. says: Wesley Vander Lugt

    Great post, Jim, and I wholeheartedly agree that Christians needs comedy, both in its literary form and in the form of hilarity. I think Lynch overstates the case, however, that tragedy aggrandizes the human condition. If anything, it shows, as I pointed out in a review here at Transpositions, the ‘woundedly embroiled’ nature of human existence. I think both tragedy and comedy serve these ends, because they show that human existence is a drama unfolding on the world stage, and we do not have a position outside the drama to gain some sort of mega-perspective. We are in the midst and the middle. We need tragedy, and we need comedy. We need, as C. S. Lewis said, tragi-comedy.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Wes, thanks for you comments and I wholly agree that we need both tragedy and comedy. I think you may have misunderstood my comments regarding Lynch. I’m not sure what you mean by ‘aggrandizes the human condition,’ but I think he would agree with you, and I did not have time or space to develop what he says about tragedy. That said, it does seem that Lynch places greater stress on comedy, but to see why I think it is best to read the full argument in Christ and Apollo. In this post, I was simply trying to develop what he says about comedy.

  3. says: Wesley Vander Lugt

    I definitely understand Jim, and I was specifically wondering about the statement: “Tragedy looks at life through the narrow end where the human condition is writ large, and so we weep for its frailty and death. Comedy, however, looks at life through the wide end where the human appears small and insignificant, and so we laugh at its foibles and awkwardness.” I’m not sure about tragedy looking at the human life writ large versus comedy looking at human life as small and insignificant. It seems that both tragedy and comedy focus on small details within the context of a larger plot, and its the interpretation of what that larger drama is like that determines whether we call the perspective tragic or comic, and whether we weep or laugh.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Sorry, I should have said that I did not explain myself very well in the post. I think you are right to point out that I may have suggested a dichotomy between comedy and tragedy. I certainly did not intend to do that. I guess I thought that Lynch’s telescope image points to different ways that comedy and tragedy tend to render human weakness. Tragedy tends to show human weakness is more significant and momentous terms, while comedy tends to show human weakness in more insignificant and laughable terms. I did not intend to use the telescope lens to suggest that tragic literature never focuses on small details, or that only comedy places a human person within the context of a larger plot (the lens, in other words, is not an analogy for a literary plot).

      Do you think it is ok to distinguish between tragedy and comedy in this way? How do you distinguish the way that tragedy shows human weakness vs. the way that comedy shows human weakness? I know you are much more up on theories about tragedy and comedy through your research on drama than I am, so any help you have to offer is greatly appreciated.

  4. says: Megan Willome

    If you can write comedy, you can touch virtually everybody. If you write tragedy, well, not so much.

  5. says: Sue Watkins

    Great subject Jim. I think we definitely do need comedy. And unfortunately we make Christianity a more serious subject. And God must have a need for comedy, you only need to look at the people He created.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Hey mom! Thanks for the comment. I won’t speculate too much on those ‘people’ he created, but I’ll bet you also needed some comedy while I grew up. As a parent now, myself, I am much to acquainted with that point of frustration where laughter is the only appropriate response.

  6. says: Cole Matson

    Excellent post, Jim. I’ve added Christ and Apollo to my reading list. I’d also recommend Fr Jim Martin SJ’s new book Between Heaven and Mirth, about the need for comedy in the Christian life. So often we forget the humour of Jesus’s parables, as well as elsewhere in Scripture.

    I remember the first time I heard the Book of Tobit read at Mass. The reader solemnly proclaimed, “That same night I washed and went into my courtyard, where I lay down to sleep beside the wall. Because of the heat I left my face uncovered. I did not know that sparrows were perched on the wall above me…” You can guess what comes next. I remember sitting up straight and thinking, “I didn’t know there was comedy in the Bible!”

    You’re right, comedy keeps us humble, as well as witnesses to our faith in the Resurrection, and that “all shall be well”. The end will be life, not death.

    And as Anna pointed out, platypii are pretty darn funny. God must have been having a laugh.

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Cole, thanks for the book recommendation. There is something wonderful, isn’t there, about discovering comedic episodes, such as the one you describe, in the bible. Just this past Sunday, actually, Trevor Hart preached in my church and he reminded us of the comedic value in the story of Samuel and Eli.

      Thanks for your comment, and yes I agree with you and Anna!

      1. says: Cole Matson

        Discovering comedic episodes is fantastic. That story of Samuel and Eli is a good example, even using the classic three-part set-up to a joke. Another one I like is when Jesus replies to the Pharisees who ask him why he hangs out with sinners, and he basically says, “A doctor spends time with the sick, not the healthy. Who else would I hang out with? Duh!” It’s a gentle joke that nevertheless communicates something vitally important.

        1. says: Cole Matson

          Also, Between Heaven and Mirth is winging its way toward me, so feel free to borrow it at any point if you want to.

  7. says: Stacy

    Thanks for the recommendation. A friend and I are planning to begin a book club at church in the near future, and I think this might work well as a selection. I’m looking forward to reading it.

    Your comments reminded me of a comment attributed to Molière: “On veut bien être méchant; mais on ne veut point être ridicule.” Or, roughly, people like to be mean/wicked, but they despise/do not like at all being ridiculed/ridiculous. I have shared that comment with students many times because I think it gets at the heart of comedy for the sake of change or truthfulness…or self-awareness.

  8. says: Jim Watkins

    Stacy, Christ and Apollo is certainly worth a read, and I wish you well with your book club. Thanks, also, for the quote.

  9. says: Marilyn Leider

    On the question of needing comedy: The article, (which I think is well-written), seems to examine the impact comedy has on the individual. In contribution to the discussion of comedy’s benefits, I would like to mention what John Mark Reynolds argues, which is the role of the comedian as prophet, court jester, or artist: A (public) figure who can say certain things in such a way that a king, politician, pastor, etc., cannot or should not. In a good society, the comedian criticizes ideas, movements, etc., get the public’s attention, and simultaneously remind the king/politician to have more humility, a richer perspective.

    Two more episodes that are hilarious in the Bible: The book of Jonah and Balaam’s donkey.

    Thanks again for the article,

    –Marilyn

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Marilyn, thanks very much for bringing up that comedy is often a communal affair. You are absolutely right that comedy is often directed at public issues, and it often takes place in a public setting. Perhaps the stand-up comedian is the best example in our time?

      Thanks also for bringing up the book of Jonah and Balaam’s donkey. It would be interesting to put together a comprehensive list of hilarity in the Bible. I’m sure someone has already done that…

      1. says: Elizabeth Roberts

        My daughter Abi Roberts www/abiroberts.com is a standup. She was baptised in Russia in 1990 by the remarkable Alexander Men 1935-1990, and is planning some gigs in Moscow and St Petersburg as we speak. She can do Susan Boyle in Russian, a thought to conjure with I think you will agree. By the way, there will be a conference in Sept 2012 inspired by Fr Alexander in Moffat, south Scotland see www.alexandermenconference.com

  10. says: Brenda

    I have always worried about this topic. Am I going to get in trouble for laughing with my kids (at home mind you) at farts? I know that sounds silly, but I have stressed over it. An eternity without laughing? I really wish I knew what Jesus did when one of the disciples let one slip…

    1. says: Jim Watkins

      Hi Brenda. You’re actually the first person in this comments stream to bring up the issue of the appropriateness of comedy. I think that what we perceive as funny and worthy of laughter is often relative to social customs and cultural norms. There are lots of situations in which one wonders whether it is appropriate to laugh or not, and the humour of children is a great example.

      As a parent, I’ve learned that offering parenting advice (even, or especially, when I’m sure I’m right) is hazardous. So, I can only offer you my solidarity as one who wonders about the same silly things.

      As for Jesus, I’m not one to speculate, but its hard to imagine that farts have not always been a source of hilarity in human society…

      1. says: Brenda

        Thank you for the spontaneous outburst of laughter your last statement provoked. Oh the depths of such apologetic statements and the visualization that goes along with this one, “As for Jesus, I’m not one to speculate, but its hard to imagine that farts have not always been a source of hilarity in human society…” I’m still laughing…thank you…

  11. says: Leticia Cortina Aracil

    Thank you for the recommendation Jim!

    I didn’t know that book but it sounds that it can be good come back to Umberto Ecco’s proposition about Christianity and humour in “The Name of the Rose”.

    It is true we don’t pay much academic attention to comedy in the Christian fields… Or to the very particular kind of humour that only shows itself in the Christian way of approaching the world. There’s a kind of humour that only can take place in spaces with really strong sense and purpose. This is clearly seen when you study carefully the live of saints and martyrs: I say “carefully” because we tend to focus on their hardships, but they often show a subtle (somehow private) but powerful sense of humour in their way of doing and saying things that define them as much as their sufferings do.

    Since the nature of Christianity involves a huge amount of tragedy, pain, effort, etc. there’s a need to reflect on those realities that might eclipse the opposite pole and make it look trivial. But that’s very superficial.
    When it comes to narrative, I think that part of the reason is the tendency to over focus on “the moral” of stories rather than in the world they open to us.

    To be truth, I believe that the loss of Aristotle’s work on comedy plays a good part of this lack of reflection. It limited a lot the erudite conversations of Christianity with the pagan authorities… Like in St. Augustine’s case, who has writing on tragedy but not a word on comedy.

    To the Greeks, comedy was not about “making fun”, it had a sense of restoration (hence is a Dionysian cult). As Danny says there, it operated an inversion and extreme reversals, implying a connection of sense between the poles. Zeus laughs constantly in Greek literature, and not disdainfully but in his role of Father. Whenever there’s a conflict among the gods his laughing dilutes all grudges: Zeus laugh keeps the gods from behaving like titans and maintains the luminous order of the world.

    But, in practise, there inclusion of comedy as restoration of the world exists in Christianity.
    It comes to me right now the prominent place it has, for example, in the Arthurian sagas, particularly the hilarity of Merlin, derivate from his superior knowledge of the world.

    1. says: Leticia Cortina Aracil

      Oh! I forgot a curious detail I was to mention here: in Spanish, “funny” is said “gracioso”, literally full of grace, which is also the same word than “graceful”.

  12. says: Stacy

    Letitia–Thanks for the interesting connections you draw here. I love Eco’s book, and didn’t think of that discussion in relationship to this one–thank you for pointing that out. Moliere’s comment about using comedy for change of attitude or morality reminds me of the Dionysian one you mentioned–that there’s something of a redemption in comedy, although I’m not convinced that Moliere himself would agree to the comparison.

    1. says: Leticia Cortina Aracil

      Glad to be of help Stacy.

      I agree Molière probably won’t say it like that, but that doesn’t mean it is not what he was doing.

  13. says: Travis

    Dear Jim,

    I’m sorry, but you’re an idiot and a hypocrite if given the chance to take two items with you to a deserted island, you wouldn’t spend half your choices on Anchorman.

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