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The Gospels as Comedy–Brief Thoughts

September 26, 2012

     While wandering the literary highways and byways, my thoughts came back to the idea of the Gospel as comedic both in content and form. It is not simply that the Gospel is “ha-ha” funny, though it has its moments. Rather, the inward and outward form of the Gospel reflects the comedic structure, especially its U-shaped structure, its use of benign deception, and its character set.

     One of the works that led me to this thought was an essay by Mary Lou Hoyle titled Commedia dell’Arte: The Image of Comedy, from the book, The Comic Terrain. In this essay, Hoyle talks about Commedia dell’Arte, a form of Renaissance Italian improvisational comedy, and how even it shows the marks of the comic structure and mindset in its simplicity. Commedia dell’Arte relies on stock characters who embody archetypes. One of these is the Pantalone or Pantaloon, a ridiculous old man. Hoyle writes, “…in most scenarios Pantalone…is obsessed with money. Occasionally he is obsessed with money and young women. Sometimes he is obsessed with money, young women, and food. Comedy always warns against obsessive behavior because it disturbs the balance of the community” (117). The episode from the Gospels that I thought of in conjunction with this was the temptation of Christ in the desert by Satan. This episode fits perfectly in with the comic structure. Satan fulfills the role of the Vice or the Pantaloon, a person who absurdly cares more about material things than love, friendship, or goodness. In the episode, Satan can never raise his gaze above the material world. He tries to tempt Christ with food, money, and power, which are precisely the things that comic villains are known for overindulging in. Christ, the comic hero, will have nothing of it. Instead, he chooses love–love for his people, love for the father, perhaps even love for Satan (?)–and does not take up the temptations, instead wittily overthrowing Satan’s constructs with some well-placed Bible verses. This scene is important in the way that it deconstructs Satan. Before the coming of Jesus, the powers of darkness were feared and hated. The Devil was (and sometimes still is) viewed as a serious, scary, figure, a real demon. But in this episode, the Devil is deconstructed into a comic villain. He is so serious, (one can envision his somber tones as he blasphemously recites Bible verses) that we can’t help seeing him as being funny in the greater context of Christ’s redemption. The devil is no longer exalted, but is put on the same level as the wicked stepmother, Shylock, or Ebenezer Scrooge. 

     Yet another comic dimension comes through in the episode–that of Jesus as the comic hero. Like many comic heroes, he is immune to the temptations of food, money, and power that the Vice or Pantaloon falls prey to. He is cool, collected, and able to see through the crass materialism of the vice. He continually outwits the Vice by speaking the truth.  When the Devil asks him to turn stones into bread, he calmly replies that “Man shall not live by bread alone”–people were not made to live for food. Hoyle says about the comic protagonist, “He is worldly wise. He lives by his wits, using information gathered by his five senses, and works toward a better time to come. (118). This puts Jesus squarely in the realm of the comic hero. He is worldly wise, as he should be, since he created the world. He lives by his wits, which makes him able to see through the Devil’s out-of-context quotations of Scripture and reply to them with more Scripture. Finally, he works toward a better time to come, the New Jerusalem that he is building.

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