in Space, Time, and the Imagination
Chapter 18, Gospel Comedy. Comedy in Space, Time, and the Imagination, pp. 287-299.
The Old Testament comedic pattern is fundamentally the pattern of successful living through faith in Yahweh, the God of Israel, in the face of any and every temporal danger and trial. In the life of David, Old Testament comedy displays its potential for both light and somber treatment. Our discussion could profitably dwell on the differences between the comedy of a faithful but unwilling Jeremiah and a rough-and-ready Amos, between the comedy of a cultured Nehemiah, Esther, or Daniel, and a rustic and none too brave Gideon. But in reducing the Old Testament comedic pattern to its recurring elements, we have followed the New Testament assessment of Hebrews, an unsigned epistle, probably by Paul:
And what more shall I say? For time will fail me if I tell of Gideon, Barak, Samson, Jephthah, of David and Samuel and the prophets, who by faith conquered kingdoms, performed acts of righteousness, obtained promises, shut the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, from weakness were made strong, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight. Women received back their dead by resurrection . . .. [Heb. 11:32-35a]
There could hardly be a better summary of the supernatural, triumphant comedy of faith found throughout the pages of the Old Testament.
Yet the writer of Hebrews goes on to recognize that none of these comedic victories is meaningful in itself and that there are many other examples in the Old Testament, particularly the example of martyred prophets, where faith did not result in supernatural, immediate victory:
And others were tortured, not accepting their release, in order that they might obtain a better resurrection; and others experienced mockings and scourgings, yes, also chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were tempted, they were put to death with the sword; they went about in sheepskins, in goatskins, being destitute, afflicted, ill-treated (men of whom the world was not worthy), wandering in deserts and mountains and caves and holes in the ground. And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect. [Heb. 35b-40]
The Christian church has always asserted that the Old Testament pattern was incomplete without the New, that apart from the New, the Old would remain unfulfilled:
The New is in the Old concealed;
The Old is in the New revealed.
The New Testament pattern itself is highly complex. For analysis, it can be broken down into four different, though related, comedies. These four will be the subject of the concluding chapters, and the first of these, Gospel comedy, will be our concern in the present chapter.
The idea that the New Testament contains comedy is hardly modern. As far back as the Middle Ages, a scholastic battle raged over the question of whether the life of Christ was a comedy, a tragedy, or a blend of the two.[i] In our own century, Christopher Fry, Father William F. Lync, Nathan Scott, Jr., and Nelvin Vos have explored the relationship between Christianity and comedy. But the idea of such a relationship has never been popular. If comedy has normally been defined as inconsequential and trivial, one can hardly expect that Christians would appreciate the suggestion that comedy had much to do with Holy Writ. Because we have rejected the Aristotelian definition of comedy with all its denigrating implications about comedy’s lack of seriousness, we are far more able to see the comedic in both Old and New Testament patterns.
The relationship between comedy and the Bible has also been obscured by the fact that, until the twentieth century, one could not find a consistent tradition of secular comedy that focused on somber aspects of the genre. Biblical comedy, almost without exception, has a somber cast because it is premised on the fallen nature of Man. Biblical comedy also has a grandeur because it is premised on the assertion that the God of the whole universe is active in human affairs. This grandeur itself produces a silent awe akin to somberness.
No wonder then that criticism has usually seen little in common between the light, social, often romantic comedy of the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries and the unromanticized biblical account. Stage conventions of comedy routinely discount injury and suffering, but biblical comedy never underestimates the sufferings of a fallen world.
Finally, we are likely to dissociate comedy from the Bible because we think of comedy as “the laughing genre.” And reverence, we are told, is at odds with mirth. New Testament writers, of course, enjoined Christians to be soberminded. But the idea that sobermindedness is in ultimate opposition to laughter smacks of a certain Victorian propriety. As Freud, Bergson, and many others have pointed out, much laughter entails the perception of some oddity or basic disparity between what is and what should be. Laughter as a response to such perceptions is then not a desertion of sobermindedness but a sign of insight. “Sober-sides” is different from soberminded. The man who fails to laugh because he does not perceive the disparate or the incongruous either in the Bible or in life may lack the sound mind that is even more emphasized than sobermindedness within the New Testament canon.
The reason laughter is removed from the common conception of reverence is not a matter of biblical principle. Rather, it is a matter of decorum and organized religious services. Laughter is easily inhibited. We do not find things funny if we know we will be looked down on for so doing. Even as children we quickly learn to ignore the laughable elements of “reverent” occasions. Told not to make obvious inferences of inconsistency, disparity, incongruity and the like, which are the mainsprings of laughter, our minds obey, but only by putting part of themselves asleep. The more reactions we rule out, the more reverence becomes a once-a-week, totally abnormal, somniferous formality. As we grow less attuned to the incongruities and disparities of the accounts of the New Testament, we not only lose a sense of laughter; ultimately, we lose a sense of meaning of the whole pattern.
In response to such dismal possibilities, seminaries have begun to emphasize that the life of Christ as presented in the Gospels is full of laughable events. The Jesus of Nazareth who walks through the Gospels has an uncanny ability to be involved in the laughable, however defined. His very birth is an oddly mismatched social occasion, Eastern kings mixing freely with shepherds, a peasant family, even the beasts of the stable. Christianity in the Middle Ages was keenly aware of the incongruity here and repeatedly borrowed the crèche motif, always fascinated by the laughable condescension—not of the kings from the East but of the King of Kings, who allows these petty potentates, along with the shepherds, the peasant family, even the animals to come before him in his guise of a newborn child. O magnum mysterium ut animalia viderent Dominum natum! (O great mystery, that animals should see the birth of the Lord!)
Jesus’s three-year ministry does not deviate from this comic pattern. In the Gospel of John, Christ begins his public ministry with the miracle at the marriage supper at Cana. We imagine the guests, slightly inebriated; the social gaffe, the wine running out; and Mary turning to her son, not for any miracle of great (or seemingly great) importance. Finally, the majordomo comes up, not to Jesus but to the bridgegroom to ask, half indignantly, why the best wine has been saved until the guests are too drunk to appreciate it. Only a handful of those present recognize the miracle for itself. Here, the laughable verges on a practical joke.
Later, we find this Jesus in the company of a laughably rag-tag bunch of disciplines, hardly, one would think, men to turn the world upside down. If the laughable has anything to do with disparity, then the laughable quality of these rural nobodies, commanded to drop their nets and to spread the Gospel throughout the world, is indisputable. Notable among them is Peter, who at the Transfiguration is so far from knowing how to act that he bursts into the conversation between Christ, Elijah, and Moses with a self-congratulatory suggestion that the disciples build tents for the three. Here the laughable borders on the lunatic. And this same Peter, seeing Christ walking on the water, refuses to be properly awed but demands instead, “Let me do it, too.” When the Lord responds that he may, Peter gets out of the boat with superhuman courage. But then, he returns to the commonsense world where people do not walk on water, looks down, and sinks into the sea.
In the last week of His life, as humanly defined, Jesus rides into Jerusalem as a conquering hero—seated on a donkey. The high priests tell Him to still the crowd. The response, like so many of his responses, is either madness or a sublime joke: “If these should be still, the very stones would shout.” Throughout the week, these savage incongruities remain. Nowhere perhaps is the incongruity more striking than when soldiers come to take Christ away and need Him to heal the servant whose ear has just been severed. Nowhere is the clowning greater than when a Roman proconsul, representative of the sum of civilized justice, washes his hands while condemning a prisoner to death.
Not only do laughable situations seem inevitably to follow this figure, Jesus of Nazareth, but He also seems deliberately to intensity the comic elements with His own comments. To four fishermen who couldn’t catch a fish all night He says, “Cast your nets on the other side!” He neglects to tell them, however, that they will need twice as many boats to land the catch safely! To the disciples when they remembered they hadn’t brought any bread to eat, He says, “Beware the leaven of the Pharisees.” To Galileans from a farm district, no doubt quite familiar with the small mustard plant, “Behold the mustard seed that, though it is the least of the herbs, becomes the greatest tree of the garden.” To the woman who defends herself by saying she has no husband, “Truly, you have no husband, for you have had five, and the one you are living with now isn’t even your husband in name.”
The incidents and comments can be drawn virtually from any page of the Gospel accounts because the life of Christ must at every turn be either vastly and laughably incongruous or simply mad. Either Christ was Who He said He was, God made flesh and walking among us—which, Transcendentalists notwithstanding, must be the greatest incongruity of all time—or He was mad to claim it. While we may be intimidated not to respond with laughter, the Good News has always been grounded in a fundamental incongruity that threatens to bring laughter, though often the darkest or most sublime, to virtually every chapter. Whether we see the incongruities or have put ourselves to sleep to avoid them, the Apostle Paul saw them clearly and labeled them plainly:
For the word of the cross is to those who are perishing foolishness but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. . . . For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not come to know God, God was well-pleased through the foolishness of the message preached to save those who believe. [1Cor. 1:18,21]
While a full understanding of the Gospel accounts is impossible without a recognition of their many laughable elements, we must remember that laughter is not a definition of comedy and that the comic or laughable, however prevalent, is at best a suggestion rather than a proof of comedy. To be comedy, something must have a certain form that makes it objectively comedic. Then, whether anyone happens to laugh, whether decorum inhibits laughter, the account remains comedy. The comic or laughable is only a potentiality: it is laugh-able, capable of producing laughter. But comedy is a form, a pattern that something either fits or doesn’t fit.
Let us then consider whether the life of Christ conforms to the comedic pattern of asserted faith in humanity’s destined survival. Like the medieval theorists who proposed to see the life of Christ as tragedy, we will go seriously astray if we emphasize the cross in our pattern without equally emphasizing the Resurrection. The Gospels do present Christ as coming to earth to die for human sins, and they do affirm that human beings can find salvation only through the acceptance of Christ’s death on the cross as the necessary payment for their sins. But historical Christianity has always asserted the incomplete nature of the Crucifixion without the Resurrection:
For I deliver to you as of the first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures and that He was buried and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures. . .. Now if Christ is preached, that He has been raised from the dead, how do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? But if there is no resurrection of the dead, not even Christ has been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain. . .. If we have only hoped in Christ in this life, we are of all men most to be pitied.
But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. For since by a man came death, by a man also came the Resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive. [1 Cor. 15:3, 4, 112-14, 19-23]
In the comedy of the Gospels, it is not that the Resurrection is more true than the Crucifixion. Rather, the Resurrection is at the center of Christian teaching with the Crucifixion. Without it there is no completed pattern, no meaning either to Jesus of Nazareth’s life or to His death. The comedy that Christianity proclaims is not merely a comedy of temporal survival; it is a comedy of eternal survival, overcoming physical death. Without the Resurrection at the end of the Gospel accounts, the assertion of eternal survival is at best an empty boast.
Despite the centrality of the Resurrection to the comedic pattern of the Gospels, the Resurrection is not given a particularly great space in the Gospels. This is typical of comedic denouement, which is normally quick. Denouements are still terribly important for defining the virtual future of comedy in general and of the Gospels in particular. If the comedic writer has done his job properly, he need not dwell on the denouement to make his point. Rather, the denouement naturally fits the pattern of the whole and quickly rounds out the comedic assertion.
So it is with the Resurrection at the end of the Gospel accounts. It is a total misreading to argue that the Resurrection is a tacked-on, unrealistic ending typical only of legend. Throughout the Gospels, a pattern necessitates the Resurrection. That pattern includes the repeated allusions to the Old Testament prophesies that foretell a resurrection; recurrent statements by Christ that the pattern of His life will not be completed unless He dies and rises again, and all the laughable incongruities of the pattern that assert the supernatural, unprecedented nature of Christ. Someone who has missed the humor of God revealing Himself to His creation as a baby surrounded by cattle in a stable can also miss the importance of the Resurrection to the full pattern of the Gospel accounts and the ultimate comedic nature of those accounts. But if we have caught the humor of the Epiphany, then the completed patter of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection falls naturally in place.
Without the Resurrection, the life of Christ is a rags-to-rags story, highly questionable even as tragedy and certainly beyond the realm of comedy. With the Resurrection, the life of Christ is a riches-to-rags-to-riches story, filled with the melodramatic implications of God condescending to leave heaven to redeem rebellious man, full of comedic victory leading to eternal life. The full scope of Christ’s comedic victory is again left for the Apostle Paul to define:
[God] raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet. [Eph. 1:20b-22a]
Seen simply from the viewpoint of plot, then, the Crucifixion is the crisis point of Gospel comedy; the Resurrection is the comedic denouement. But we have used these terms of classical criticism only infrequently in our previous investigations—largely because they conceal as often as they reveal. Saying that the Crucifixion is a crisis point is true enough. But it is not the only crisis point in the Gospels. Throughout His life, Christ is confronted with crises that test whether He is truly the Messiah, whether He can be found worthy of resurrection and eternal life as God-with-God. Such recurrent crises do not distinguish the structure of the Gospels from much other comedy. It is, for instance, profitable to look at Viola in Twelfth Night as repeatedly proving herself a worthy match for Orsino and to see Mirabell repeatedly proving the superiority of independent social flair over slavish adherence to societally dictated style in the The Way of the World.
Instead of emphasizing plot and its constituents, we have emphasized pattern and its meaning. The pattern of the Gospels is, among other things, a pattern of Christ proving Himself to be the Messiah. This proof can be analyzed as consisting of at least three parts. First, Christ fulfills the prophesies that any Messiah would have to fulfill. Everything about His life, from His birth at the right time and His escape from Herod, through His rejection in Galilee, His temptation in the wilderness, the repeated tests and tricks of the scribes and Pharisees, to his final humiliation and death are all tests that Jesus must pass or fail in proving Himself the prophesied Messiah.
Second, Christ proves Himself to be the Messiah by doing things beyond what is necessitated by prophesy, things that only the Messiah as God could do. These gratuitous proofs are as common in the Gospel pattern as the prophetic proofs. They all have a festive, energetic, serendipitous sense of God walking again amid His creation, dispensing blessings with an incomprehensible generosity.
In this vein, Christ can be seen repeatedly meeting the needs of individuals brought before Him. He is seen creating wine at the marriage of Cana, forgiving sin as well as healing the body of the paralytic lowered through the roof, making a disciple of Matthew as well as calling him back from an evil life. Repeatedly people ask Him for things. When they ask in faith, their requests are granted; when they ask without faith, they receive nothing. By the father of the epileptic, Christ is asked, “But if You can do anything, take pity on us and help us!” By the centurion, He is asked not only to heal but to heal without physical presence. By Pilate, He is asked the answer to the philosophical question of the ages, “What is truth?”
Third, Christ proves Himself the Messiah by acting in faith. In fact, this third type of proof must necessarily inform both the other types. For comedy asserts not only destined survival, but the conditions on that survival. The clear condition of Gospel survival is inward faith that directs outward action. Christ can do nothing without faith. To be the Messiah, He must do everything in faith. Christ’s faith is demonstrated in His prayer life, dedication to the Scriptures, and willingness to base every act on a consistent reading of those Scriptures. Thus, when Peter is asked if Jesus pays the poll tax, Jesus’s answer is twofold. Consistent with His faith that He is the Son of God, He answers that He is obliged by nothing in Scripture to pay the tax; second, He commands Peter to catch a fish with a coin in its mouth to pay the tax. The faith is no more clear in the miraculous command than in the consistent philosophy.
Most often, the Gospels show Christ’s faith in contrast to the lack of faith in those around Him. We have already noted comedy’s practice of demonstrating the conditions of survival by such contrasts. The Gospels emphasize this condition of faith repeatedly in the failure even of the disciples to act in the complete faith of their Master. When the disciples fail to heal the epileptic boy, it is because they lack the prayerful faith that Christ has. When Peter waivers and begins to sink, he lacks the faith that allows Christ both to walk on the waters and to pull Peter out. When the fearful disciples wake Christ in the storm, they lack the faith that allows Him to sleep.
The disciples lack consistent faith, and the faith of others is either nonexistent or false. The rich young man thinks he has faith. A single command shows that he doesn’t. The Pharisees think they have faith in keeping the Law, but Christ’s words, “Let him who has no sin cast the first stone,” and whatever He writes in the dust, prevent them from carrying out the explicit death penalty defined in their Law. Pilate pretends to have the answers of a ruler, but when things get tough he asks the question that shows he has no answers at all.
But comedic patterning need not proceed entirely by contrasts. In the Gospels, many people emulate Christ’s faith, and their faith brings success and life to them. Thus the paralytic and his four friends are given both physical and spiritual healing. The women who washes Christ’s feet is given a new life. The centurion who asks in perfect faith is given back his beloved servant.
The pattern of the Gospels is the pattern of Christ proving Himself to be the Messiah and achieving eternal life. The pattern concentrates on the condition placed on that survival, perfect faith. Those who emulate that perfect faith are given hope of eternal survival through Jesus as Messiah. They are also granted temporal blessings as symbols of that greater survival. Those who do not have faith receive no blessings and, by implication, possess no eternal survival either.
While Gospel comedy obviously centers on the figure of Christ, then, like other comedies, the Gospels produce a cast of characters who are all judged for survival on the same basis. Either they meet the condition of faith in Jesus as the Messiah or they don’t. Those who do, gain life; those who don’t, damn themselves.
Technically, these supporting characters may be grouped in the comedic categories of heroes, buffoons, fools, or villains. Properly directed faith is the final criterion for these distinctions.
On the heroic, or at least close to heroic side, we find Peter, a man of great but impetuous, inconsistent, and wavering faith. We also find Matthew, with a faith so humble that he refuses to name himself when describing the party he give to celebrate his conversion. We find parents of little but desperate faith like the father of the epileptic, men of unaccountably great faith like the centurion, women of faith despite a sordid past like Mary Magdalene, women of desperate faith like the women who touched the hem of Jesus’s garment. The qualifications we can place on the faith of supporting characters are extremely varied. What remains constant is that as characters they are all sympathetic and surviving for having learned the secret of eternal life—faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah.
Interestingly for the pattern, when such characters are developed in the Gospel accounts they are seen converging upon and developing into the character of the One in Whom they believe. And as He is shown to have a resurrected life, by implication, as they are conformed to His image, they too have a resurrected life. Thus Peter, so hesitantly faithful on the Sea of Galilee, so bumblingly inarticulate at the Transfiguration, becomes the great lion of God, preaching confidently the Way of the Cross in two epistles and marching confidently to a death like his Lord’s. The Gerasene demoniac we see clothed, in his right mind, calm and dedicated to a ministry of preaching the Good News among his own people. Mary Magdalene, the former harlot, we see as the truly loving disciple, willing to humble her pride in washing feet, first to set out to anoint the body of Christ on Easter, overcoming fear to embrace the Lord lovingly before the empty tomb, given the ministry to be the first to tell of the Resurrection, and promised to be remembered wherever the Gospel is preached. The clear pattern, re-emphasized in the Epistles, is that faith in Christ results in being conformed to the image of Christ, including His Resurrection.
If sympathetic status in the Gospel accounts depends upon belief and faith, the Gospels also present fools who would like to have faith yet are not quite willing to put their faith in Christ. Notable among these is the rich young ruler. Others ask for time—wait until I bury my father and mother—and are rejected for their failure to have a faith for the present, not just a faith for a vague and postponable future. The modern understanding is that fools must be pitied but cannot be utterly cast out. The Gospel pattern is that fools as well as villains are totally rejected and totally without eternal life. Judas Iscariot is not a villain. He follows Jesus for years trying to believe. But finally, he cannot. And when he can’t, he is utterly cut off from both temporal and eternal life.
Finally, the Gospel counts present a number of villains. In all cases, the villains are men who, by their very station, represent some faith, but who are really empty formalists without faith. The great majority of these villains, of course, fall into the category of scribes, Pharisees, and Sadducees. The only other notable example is Pilate. From the Christian point of view, all these figures are hollow shells, the core of their beings eaten away:
Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness. [Matt. 23:27]
The Gospel accounts, then, backed by epistolary commentary, are informed by a fully formed, consistent comedic pattern. They contain a cast of figures ranging from Christ as ultimate comedic hero, through sympathetic figures, to fools and outright villains. For many of the supporting characters, the pattern shows distinct movement form one category to another. Nicodemus is first seen as a Pharisee, possibly a fool in not understanding what he wants to understand in Christ’s words. Finally, he is heroic in requesting the body of Jesus, taking his stand of faith when the disciples are running for cover. Peter himself is heroic when he proclaims Christ to be the Messiah, but a buffoon at the Transfiguration and a fool when he starts to sink into the sea, when he denies Christ three times, and when rebuked by Paul. But finally, he is a hero in the image of Christ in his later ministry and epistles.
Such switching of status, however, is not an inconsistency of the Gospel Pattern. It is only a fidelity to the basic comedic message. There is only one perfectly good because perfectly faithful Man. That Man is Jesus Christ. All others, even the most sympathetic and heroic, have feet of clay. All men other than Christ are imperfect and inconstant, lost except for God’s unchanging grace in sending His Son as a special Christ or Anointed One, Imperfect humanity latches onto eternal life by putting real though imperfect faith in God’s Anointed One of perfect faith.
Here we return to the importance of the Resurrection. Imperfect human beings may put imperfect faith in Christ and may accept His death as atoning for all sin. The faith is there. It is directed properly. But the pattern would make no sense unless it were shown that such faith can bring eternal life. Without a Resurrection, there is faith but no reality. With the Resurrection, the comedy completes itself. The dubious battle is resolved. The conditions of eternal survival have been met, and eternal survival is ensured.
The Gospels are a comedy, fundamentally, of Christ’s life, death, and Resurrection. In the Epistles, this view of Christ is maintained. But the Epistles move to a new emphasis on the comedy of individual conversion to the faith, with the individual believer the central concern, and to an emphasis on the comedy of Christian life from conversion to entrance into the celestial kingdom. In the Book of Revelation, yet another facet, the comedy of Christ’s triumphant return as judge at the end of the age is developed from its beginnings in the Gospels and Epistles. These three other New Testament comedies rest upon the central comedy of the Gospels. In the final two chapters, I will consider these three comedies as they are embodied in major works on the English literary tradition.
[i] Karl S. Guthke, Modern Tragicomedy: An Investigation into the Nature of the Genre (New York: Random House, 1966), pp. 5-19.