Tragic Christianity and Comic Christianity

A few months back, while only posting chapters from Things Unseen on the blog, I listened to a Great Course called “Take my Course, Please! The Philosophy of Humor.” It was a fascinating look at the nature and study of humor (and how much scholars are in debate over such core ideas as what makes something funny? or why do we laugh at some things and not others?) but, as many things do, it got me thinking about theology and religion.

In one of the early lectures, the professor (Dr. Steven Gimbel) describes the differences between “gelastic” and “agelastic” societies. The term “gelastic” comes from the Greek word for laughter: “gelos.” A quick dictionary search didn’t return a hit for “gelastic,” and a search of Wikipedia turned up only “gelastic seizure,” apparently a type of epileptic fit associated with sudden outbursts of energy and, often, laughter.

So I’ll (roughly) paraphrase Dr. Gimbel’s definition of a gelastic society as one that places value in humor.  To the gelastic society, the requirement of “getting” a joke that you change perspectives serves a valuable philosophical function by widening understanding and teaching one to look at an idea in multiple different ways.

By way of example, think about the following joke: “A sandwich walks into a bar. The bartender says, “Sorry, pal, we don’t serve food here.” The double definition of the word “serve” reveals the conflict of perspective and meaning on which the joke turns. Not very well, perhaps.

Likewise the gelastic society values jokes and humor for their ability to speak truth to power, to critique foibles and failures both human and societal, to continually ask for the examination of ourselves and our worlds.

Conversely, the agelastic society sees jokes and humor as dangerous–often for the same reason the gelastic society values them. Agelastic societies tend to have a strict definition of truth that is not to be questioned or assailed. Thus, jokes that question truth, ask “why,” or require different perspectives are seditious and seductive, often undermining the narrow definition of what is “true” and “good” held by the agelastic society.

You probably already see the argument forming, but let’s continue anyhow.

Dr. Gimbel goes further to examine “tragic” heroes and “comic” heroes, how they differ, and what it might mean for a person or society who favors one over the other. For Gimbel–and he makes a strong case–comic heroes triumph through their wits, by finding creative solutions, maneuvering around obstacles, or creating compromise that allows for a happy ending. Tragic heroes, on the other hand, knuckle down and power straight through the resistance, accepting suffering (and often inflicting it) as the cost of doing business.

Shakespeare provides ample examples of the two types. Think of tragic Hamlet, unable to find any solution to his problems other than violence, or Macbeth, whose will to power results in the coming of Birnum Wood and Dunsinane against him, in the form of MacDuff. Think, on the other hand, of Benedick and Beatrice maneuvering against one another, and being brought to confess their love for one another through creative deceit. We can look at modern examples as well. For Gimbel, the action movie is the modern embodiment of the tragic hero. Think of any Schwarzenegger film from the 80’s or 90’s, of recent revenge heroes like the film Peppermint or the TV show Punisher. Tragic heroes use the direct route to achieve their ends–violence. Heroes in comic films continue to use deceit, imagination, and creative maneuvering to win the day; think of Knives Out as a strong example. Both the revenge films and the comic example I’ve given start with a traumatic inciting event, usually a death, but how the protagonists respond to that event determines the course of the film or show.

Ideas about tragic and comic heroes don’t map directly onto ideas about gelastic and agelastic people or societies, but there’s certainly a relationship to be had there.

We can, though, easily speak about gelastic and agelastic theologies within Christianity. I’d been thinking about this idea in terms of restrictive and expansive theologies prior to listening to Dr. Gimbel’s great course, and I think that this correlates with gelastic (expansive) and agelastic (restrictive) quite well.

I’d ask the question this way: Does your theology make the world less joyful, smaller, easier to explain, and focus on what is not permissible, or does your theology make the world bigger, more wondrous, less explicable, and focus on doing rather than avoiding? Restrictive and expansive. Agelastic and gelastic.

The Sunday School class I’ve been participating in recently asked me to teach for a few sessions on humor in the Bible, based in part on my sharing with them my idea about Reading Matthew 18:15-17 as a Joke. I was, admittedly, ill prepared to say more on the matter, so I ordered some books, digested them quickly, and put together some examples and arguments for them.

We laughed together as we read in the Old Testament sex jokes, dark humor, comic deceit, and bathroom humor, the sorts of things we’re taught not to expect from the Bible. In the New Testament, we looked at Jesus’s use of sarcasm and satire as a social tool for liberation, seeing in Jesus not a meek and helpless man but an image of the God who chooses to triumph without inflicting violence on others.

I made arguments about the use of humor in the Bible as a way for God to indicate understanding of the human condition, of being willing to roll around in the mud with us (so to speak), to be close to us in the human experience. I argued that God’s sense of humor is an indication of God’s sovereignty, self-sufficiency, and love for Creation. But perhaps the best takeaway from one of my classmates was the idea that, while reading the Bible, context matters. For instance, if you know that, in the understanding and practice of the Old Testament writers, “feet” are sometimes used as a euphemism for “genitalia,” there are a number of passages that suddenly become a bit more risque and much more comic. Note that this substitution does not apply to the New Testament writers, especially when reading about the washing of feet. That’s just feet.

Therein lies the importance of humor and a gelastic outlook to good theology. In both, context matters. The requirements to change perspectives, to view from different angles, to consider multiple meanings (not always in conflict with one another) are essential to the theological task.

And yet, conservative Christianity takes the agelastic approach. Biblical humor becomes blasphemy, as if God is so vulnerable as to be injured by words. Seriousness is holiness, and a strict and limited definition of holiness, focused more on avoidance of a checklist of no-no’s than the actual pursuit of a better, more just world in line with God’s kingdom. In the conservative branch of the faith, there is but one interpretation–theirs–which may not be questioned, may not be looked at from a different perspective, and most definitely should not be joked about. Conservative Christianity is certainly agelastic; I’d argue that it’s tragic as well.

Progressive Christianity, on the other hand, is clearly gelastic. The humility that follows the admission that one’s personal theology is not the only possible theology, that one might be wrong on certain or all points, naturally includes the ability to enjoy humor, sometimes at one’s expense, but more often at the difficulty of the human condition combined with the hope of God’s promises. It is expansive, allowing one to consider multiple valuations of what is “good” and “true” and “righteous,” not in a relativistic way, but in a way that acknowledges that, even when dealing with objective Truth, context matters. Having come from a relatively conservative church background, and returning to the Christian faith with a much more progressive theology has made the world seem brighter, more hopeful, more worth fighting for. And, yes, funnier.

This is a roundabout way to argue in favor of progressive Christianity. A full argument on this tack would require much more space and time than I have here. So, I’ve settled for hitting some high points for your consideration, that you might dig deeper and see whether these ideas have some personal meaning to you in determining your own thought about your faith and theology–Christian or not. I should also say that this is not a logical argument that I’ve made–whether a theology is agelastic or gelastic does not determine whether it is true. On the other hand, “you shall know the tree by its fruit.” And I’ve often argued, and will continue to do so, that not all methods of understanding matters of faith sound in logic and cold reason. Some are matters of intuition, emotion, and experience.

Darwinism Doesn’t Exist in Star Wars (A comment on the Mandalorian)

Warning: (Minor) spoilers ahead.

As I’ve said, holidays are for faith, for family–and for Star Wars. I indulged in two of the three yesterday, binging the first four episodes of The Mandalorian (which I’d held back from watching for just this occasion) with my dad.

Part of me still expects to see Clint Eastwood’s face when the Mandalorian finally removes his mask given the laconic gunslinging of the titular character and the show’s rigid–maybe too rigid–adherence to the tropes of the western genre.

It’s a fun show, if a little simplistic. The fights have plenty of eye-candy (though also a lot of flaws for those of us with some knowledge of the way of the gun) and the plot paces along quick enough to leave the gaps in logic behind before you think too much about them. In that way, it’s classic Star Wars, though part of me also feels that this story could take place in any space opera setting and has Star Wars grafted on as fan-service more than being a story deeply embedded within the Star Wars universe–though this is perhaps my watching with a too-critical eye rather than a reasonably critical one. Did I say that the show is fun? I can’t say that enough–if you want something fun to watch and/or need a Star Wars fix, The Mandalorian will fit the bill nicely.

But I’ve mainly put this post here to rain on the parade of “Baby Yoda” memes and paraphernalia. Yes, the kid is super-cute. Yes, he’s very endearing. Yes, his antics are highly amusing. And yes, the Star Wars nerd in me is very excited to learn more about Yoda’s species (even if our reference to the character has been relegated to “Baby Yoda” because neither the character nor the species has yet been given a name). The problem, though, is that I don’t believe in Baby Yoda beyond his (her?) status as McGuffin and marketing ploy by Disney (one that is sure to be extremely successful, I’m sure).

Here’s why this post is placed in both the “Fiction” and the “Fatherhood” portions of the blog: I’m now six months into fathering Hawkwood and Marshal. It’s been tough, which was not unexpected but which doesn’t change the fact that it’s tough. I haven’t written too much about it on the blog lately as I’m still struggling through and sorting out feelings myself, and while I’m usually willing to parse through my thoughts and feelings publicly (at least insofar as the blog’s readership qualifies this a truly “public”), these I feel it’s more appropriate to play closely to the chest for the time being.

Suffice to say, though, as I know all parents do, I have times when I ask myself, “how much longer is it going to be like this? How much more can I take?” There are redeeming moments that take the edge off of that frustration, but managing it sometimes feels like a full-time job. On top of an actual full-time job, the task of raising and caring for the children, staying closely-connected with K, writing on my novel and the blog, and making some time for some other hobbies, it’s a lot.

And that’s why I find Baby Yoda such an unbelievable character. I can accept a species that lives for 900+ years. But one that remains a toddler for at least fifty years? Nope. A species cannot survive such a catastrophic development–though perhaps it explains why there are so few of Yoda’s kind in the galaxy and why those there are seem to be possessed of boundless patience and Zen-like stoicism.

Yes, Baby Yoda is extremely well-behaved for a toddler (at least so far as I’ve seen), though also possessed of a stubborn streak characteristic of the age. I don’t expect to see a scene where, furious, the Mandalorian throws his helmet on the ground (forgetting his oath, of course), utters a string of profanities and wonders why he ever made the decision to become Baby Yoda’s protector in the first place. It would be in keeping with the tropes of the category of story that’s being told here, it might be the deepest characterization of the Mandalorian we get, and it might be the most verisimilitude we could expect to see in a Star Wars story. But we won’t get it.

Now, I don’t want to bring up the shame of midichlorians again, but I can’t help but compare the idea of a creature that stays an infant for more than five decades to that level of storytelling gaffe. I know, I know, we’re talking about a setting that includes easy faster-than-light travel, stories following relatively unnuanced workings of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”, the Force and many other elements that openly defy credulity and beg the kind of willing suspension of disbelief that is part and parcel of the enjoyment and success of the setting. Even so, it’s often (for me, at least) the attention to verisimilitude in the details that paves the way for the greater fantastical elements of a setting. For example, this is, I think, what makes Max Brooks’ World War Z so wonderful–if you can accept zombies, the rest of the stories within play out thoughtfully and believably, making the acceptance of zombies a low price of admission.

To see that Darwinian evolutionary forces sometimes simply don’t exist in Star Wars undermines that willing suspension of disbelief–I enjoyed watching the show in spite of this, but I spent an inordinate time while viewing wondering how a toddler could survive fifty years of being a toddler, what kind of saintly parents would be necessary to make such a system work, what benefit there might be to having a creature mature so slowly, etc., etc., ad nauseam.

Just me?

Sanity Check!!!!

The children have gone to church with K. I’m taking a more “authentic” sabbath and keeping a day of rest–and writing (conveniently, the sermon being preached today is entitled “You need the rest,” and concerns the fourth commandment).

There’s so much I want to do in this ephemeral freedom, so many easy distractions with which to sate superficial needs and truly kill time. But I’m exerting some self-discipline and spending the time doing what I love best–and what will truly restore some much-needed energy and sense of value. Writing. This post is the warm-up to returning to some work in writing the finer plot details for my novel as preparation for writing proper. If I hit a block on that, I suspect that there may be further blog posts later this morning.

Two sorry-not-sorry apologies to begin. If you clicked on this post hoping for something gaming-related (and who could blame you), you’re going to be disappointed–this is a post about raising children. If you have no idea what a “sanity check” is or who H.P. Lovecraft is, you may need to open Wikipedia and/or do some independent research for all of this to make sense. If you are a gamer parent, or a gamer who expects to have kids one day, I expect that this post will be especially enjoyable.

It occurred to me that I have some subconscious association between having kids and H.P. Lovecraft. When we had our first placement (three years and one day before this one), I reread all of Lovecraft’s corpus. This time, I find myself drawn to the recently-released Call of Cthulhu and Sinking City games (though I have no time for them at present and thus have not purchased them). A psychologist would have a field day, and we’ll delve into that deeper in a moment, I suppose.

But first, the two boys who are with us need some names for blogging purposes. Our first two were, by sheer randomness, Abe and Bess. This time, I’m having more trouble deciding. There’s Cain and Abel, but that didn’t work out so well. Jacob and Esau, but that too isn’t the best of relationships. Joseph and–nope, that one’s not going to work either. Has anyone else noticed how many dysfunctional family relationships are in the Old Testament? There’s some great theology to be had there, or as my pastor friends would say, “That’ll preach.” Someone remind me to do a post to delve into that, it’s a topic for another time.

That still leaves me with no names, though. How about Hawkwood and Marshal? Two famous English mercenary captains. They’ve been waging a concerted war against me, I’m sure, so it seems to fit in my own mind. We’ll make Hawkwood the older boy, three in October, leaving Marshal for the younger, of course, one in October.

Now that we’ve got some names, some fun ones, I hope (and if you don’t enjoy them as much as I do, that’s too bad–I’m a nerd and I’m the one writing!), let’s get to the point.

Why is it that I’ve got this link between Lovecraft and raising children in my mind? I pride myself on being especially self-aware, particularly able to look at myself in a somewhat objective light and get to the bottom of my psyche without assistance; let’s see if it works this time.

Lovecraft wrote a different kind of horror, not entirely free of historical influences and bindings, of course, being especially mired in the nihilistic thought and existential philosophy that developed over the course of the 19th century. We can associate some of the classic tropes of horror with Lovecraft–body horror, Otherness, fear of mortality, societal and psychological anxieties, etc. But Lovecraft went further with his Cthulhu mythos, which is why we call his genre of horror cosmic. Lovecraft’s deepest form of horror is existential–that the universe has no overarching and benevolent structure or meaning, that suffering is inevitable, constant, and without redeeming value, and that entropy and despair are the ultimate fates of all things. That’s the type of horror that sticks with a person long after the sudden shocks and momentary frights, after the monsters have gone back under the bed or into the closet and the ghosts have been exorcised for a while.

Again, what does this have to do with children? A few things, actually. Sanity being one of them. Not in the broad sense of a person’s mental health, but in the localized sense of those little insanities that sometimes overtake each of us when we lose our cool and the concomitant ability to act rationally. These are my moral and personal failings–but a two-year-old sure has the fast track to bringing them out in me. Just as I had to deal with them with Bess (see Just Give Her the Damn Goldfish!), I’m still letting myself get out of my own head with desires to achieve some modicum of control over situations where control doesn’t matter. Since two-year-olds often say one thing and then do another, or change their mind about what they want or don’t want in milliseconds, opportunities abound.

As (I think) I’ve mentioned, Hawkwood is extremely intelligent. His vocabulary is astounding, he bent our Alexa to his will within two days (we’ve listened to Toto’s “Africa 57,432,001 times now. I used to like that song.), he can help with laundry, dishes and cooking. But between two and three is when children begin to learn to consciously manipulate to get what they want. This is developmentally appropriate, it is the early stages of learning important social and relational skills. But since Hawkwood is so intelligent, his attempts at manipulation are especially infuriating. A few examples: Hawkwood asks questions (often random, but always associated with something or someone nearby) whenever he wants to change the subject and avoid something he’s being asked to do; he phrases what he wants as questions: “Do you want milk?”; he parcels out affection when it is calculated to achieve his ends. Don’t get me wrong; he’s a sweet boy and I’ve quickly become quite fond of him. He’s also a little booger.

It’s that the above combines with his inability to rationalize or employ logic (although it’s possible he’s just using non-Euclidean geometries in his logic) that has a tendency to make me lose my head. You can’t bargain with a child who’s not ready to evaluate cost and benefit. You can’t reason with a child for whom cause and effect are not entirely real, such that consequences–particularly those that are minutes or hours down the line–carry any real sense of urgency.

As you know, I am a lawyer in my day-to-day career. There are a few things I’ve learned well in that profession: (1) You cannot make someone do something they don’t want to do without coercive force; this is never a positive experience and always has consequences. (2) For those people (and it’s certainly not everyone), with the ability and desire to act rationally, they must be able to reasonably calculate costs and benefits in order to be persuaded. (3) For those who cannot or will not be subject to reason, you can only achieve compliance by playing into their pre-existing beliefs, weaknesses and expectations (something our current president does all too well).

All of these things remain true of a two-year-old, except that they cannot be expected to act according to reason and do not yet have any pre-existing beliefs and expectations (other than selfishness) to use to advantage. That leaves me–someone who is typically quite persuasive and (I think) very good at working through conflicts–powerless when it comes to Hawkwood. And I hate being powerless.

Add to this sleep-deprivation, a schedule that currently revolves entirely around meeting the needs of the children and helping them to adapt in what is a very difficult situation for them, and putting aside the semblance of frustration (as much as possible) to help them to bond to you, and you quickly lose sight of the idea that this is a phase that will pass. Once the children are in daycare and I’m back to working, the days will be far easier and life will return to something that feels manageable. In the meantime, the horror feels existential. Cue Lovecraft.

But Lovecraft was an atheist, and that left him little respite from his nihilistic despair. I am a man of faith, and one possessing a powerful will at that. So, regardless of the similarities between the terror of children and the cosmic terror of otherworldly beings, the differences are greater, and the ending is not the same. I will not succumb to despair, and my present situation will not acquiesce to tragedy or insanity. We will make meaning out of chaos and thereby dispel the lurkers at threshold.

Maybe that puts us closer to August Derleth’s much-maligned “posthumous collaborations” with Lovecraft, in which Derleth’s own Christian view superseded Lovecraft’s atheistic nihilism in the stories of the Cthulhu mythos the two wrote “together.” Maybe that’s what I should pick up next, to read while Hawkwood is slowly drifting off to sleep at night after I pick him up and rock him, play the classical music on his night-time CD, and sit with him in the bed until slumber takes him.

More to come.

 

A Christian Theory of Humor

I feel like I’ve written about this before, but it seems that I haven’t, so here we go.

There is much to be said about humor, its causes and its effects, from physiological studies to sociological implications (I heard someone talking about the role of humor in demonstrating integration into a social group on NPR a while back). I’m going to focus on what humor tells me, at least, about theology.

Let me begin by saying that I must rely on the hope that God is especially forgiving of humor, even if in bad taste. If not, I might be in trouble…

The theory of humor; i.e. “why are some things funny and some things not?” looks to several core attributes of those things that make us laugh. By way of shortcut in the matter of theory, I’m going to point to Wikipedia’s article on “Humor.” Not the most reliable or deepest of sources, I know, but it’ll do.

Wikipedia says that the “root components” of humor are:

(1) Being reflective or imitative of reality; and
(2) containing surprise/misdirection, contradiction/paradox, or ambiguity

I look at these descriptors and marvel at how they mesh with my existential approach to theology.

Before I unpack that, though, let’s look to an opposite phenomena that I think will shed much light on my ideas that follow.

We start with a German word: weltschmerz. Weltschmerz (literally “world-pain”) means that pain that one feels at realizing the difference between the way the world is and the way the world could be. It is often defined as being similar to the French ennui, but I think that these terms are quite different (but both existentially related)–ennui being the suffering caused by finding no meaning in existence.

Weltschmerz is a wonderful word; it describes with specificity something we all feel at one time or another but struggle to communicate. When something is overhyped and the experience fails to fulfill the expectation of the experience? Weltschmerz. That sense of injustice that causes one to rage inside while also feeling helpless? Weltschmerz. The force behind fatalism and gallows humor? Weltschmerz. It was this idea that started me thinking about a theological explanation of humor.

Things are funny when they are close to reality but not quite right. On top of that, let’s look at the three other aspects Wikipedia attaches to humor: surprise, contradiction and ambiguity.

Surprising things are funny because they turn expectations on their head. Surprise is about possibility, and the pleasure of surprise in humor is that it reminds us that the world does not have to be the way that it is–it could be different. Often, the surprise comes from a sudden change in frame of reference or perspective. Consider the following, ripped straight from the internet:

“Mom, where do tampons go?”
“Where the babies come from, darling.”
“In the stork?”

Reference what I said before about inappropriate humor.

I’ve had some difficulty finding a joke (that I’m willing to write here, which says a lot) that adequately demonstrates paradox/contradiction that isn’t also heavily inundated with surprise. This is understandable, I suppose. The best I’ve found is the following, from Demetri Martin:

“‘I’m sorry’ and ‘I apologize’ mean the same thing. Except at a funeral.”

Without providing a bunch of jokes to allow for an inductive conclusion about the nuance between surprise and contradiction, I will point you to an established narrative trope using contradiction for humor, via TVTropes.com. If, like me, you can lose hours following rabbit trails on TVTropes.com, I apologize.

When we attempt to come to a Christian theological understanding of humor, paradox and contradiction are essential elements. First, there is the “meta” aspect of thinking theologically about paradox and contradiction–much of theology is an attempt to reconcile apparent contradictions and paradoxes, or, as Chesterton puts it, “Christianity got over the difficulty of combining furious opposites, by keeping them both, and keeping them furious.”

He’s right, you know, Christianity invites us to dive headfirst into paradoxes and contradictions and to struggle with them, often without easy (or any) resolution.

At the same time, paradox in humor is a sister to weltschmerz; the half where we see the difference between how the world is and could be and we laugh instead of crying–both are existentially-appropriate reactions, I think.

At its most fundamental, paradoxical humor reminds us that the world doesn’t have to be the way it is; the contradictions of paradoxical humor often ask us to laugh at how the world is worse than it could/should be. Like humorous surprise, the same humor reminds us that we can make things better.

As a relevant aside, Chesteron has also written, “Paradox–Truth standing on her head to get attention.”

And now to ambiguity. If you’ve read my previous series on ambiguity in scripture, you’ll know that I think that ambiguity–and our ability to struggle with and engage it–are fundamental aspects of Christianity. So it should come as no surprise that I think that the humor derived from ambiguity is not merely an existential coping mechanism (though it is often that), but a well-concealed revelation of Truth.

There’s a great (and short!) article on how lexical ambiguity contributes to humor here, on the Society for Linguistic Anthropology website. Lexical ambiguity is just one small portion of ambiguity in humor, but it suffices to illustrate the point. I’ll borrow an exemplative joke (much tamer than the previous ones) from that site:

“How do you make a turtle fast?”
“Take away his food.”

Note the inseparable elements of contradiction and surprise in that joke, which uses ambiguity about the applicable definition of the word “fast” to reach the punchline.

Taken altogether, ambiguity, surprise and contradiction work together to make us laugh by disrupting comfortable and seemingly reliable assumptions and expectations. At its most fundamental, this is also what Christianity does as well–it tells us that what the world tries to seduce us with (money, power, fame) does not have the depth of meaning and ability to fulfill that true living does (through love, the pursuit of justice and mercy, and relationships, for instance). Both Christianity and humor tell us that things can change–that we can change both ourselves and the world for the better.

By my Chrsitian understanding, humor does two theological things: first and most important, it gives us hope by reminding us that things do not have to be as they are–that God is calling us to work to change them for the better; second, humor reminds us of raw possibility, of our ability to participate in the creation of meaning, of the existential joys of being God’s creations.