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The Gospels as Carnival: A Literary Impression

January 25, 2013

The other day I was reading an essay from an excellent collection of essays titled The Terrain of Comedy. The essay was by Marilyn Stewart and titled “Carnival and Don Quixote: The Folk Tradition of Comedy.” Although I wasn’t quite convinced by her thesis about Don Quixote itself (a book I need to re-read), the essay included insights from both her and Russian critic Mikhail Bakhtin about the carnival aspect of comedy. Stewart writes,

“Four elements of carnival celebration seem especially relevant to a comic paradigm: disguises or masks which suggest some kind of metamorphosis (for example, men dressed as women or clowns in painted faces), a reign of confusion where boisterous anarchy appears to prevail, contests or attacks, and ritual execution (of pharmakoi or King Carnival). The world of carnival is thus a peculiar construction which loosens the conventional boundaries between fantasy and reality and mocks ordinary ways of perceiving time and space. During carnival time…Conventional groupings of people–for example, in terms of sex, age, social rank, or ethnic group–temporarily lose their significances and unexpected alliances of people who seem to have little in common are typical”(144-145).

And she quotes Bakhtin, who writes,

“Carnival brings together, unites, weds, and combines the sacred with the profane, the lofty with the lowly, the wise with the stupid, etc.” (145).

And then further down she writes,

“The studies of both [Anthony] Caputi and Bakhtin call attention to the religious significance of the carnival’s preoccupation with the ‘vulgar’ reality of an Iron Age: whatever is mocked or seemingly destroyed is simultaenously being prepared for renewal and rebirth. Caputi’s concise scheme for the full pattern of carnival action is ‘death, resurrection, wedding.’ But Bakhtin goes on to say that where a culture loses sight of the bonds of community, the external gestures of carnival move toward the banality of a mere holiday or the desperate hilarity of alienated individuals” (146)

While reading through this essay and digesting these ideas, I realized that this carnival aspect is an integral part of the Gospels, something that we miss in our individualistic, Westernized, post-everything readings of the Bible. (Which suggests to me that reading comparative literature might be essential to intellectual engagement with the Gospel.) In fact, I was quite surprised at almost one-to-one correlation of the carnival to the Gospel story.

Let’s look at Stewart’s list of the four elements of the carnival. First, she lists “disguises or masks which suggest some sort of metamorphosis.” The greatest disguise in the Gospels is the Incarnation, God “disguising” himself as a man, as–heaven forbid!–a poor Jewish carpenter. But the disguise motif appears throughout the Gospel. Jesus not only disguises his nature as the conquering Messiah in the clothing of the Suffering Servant. He also uses disguise in his discourse, telling parables and asking rhetorical questions instead of setting out a systematic theology. His method of teaching does not involve a set of propositional arguments (though certainly he is not opposed to this), but instead works through subversion, irony and fiction. Jesus tells fictional stories in order to find out the true beliefs of people. And there is another appearance of comic disguise in the Gospel that I cannot leave out–the time that Jesus appears to the disciples on the Sea of Galilee and they think he is a ghost. There is a funny ironic turn here, with a contrast between who Jesus is and who the disciples think he is, an contrast that has not been studies enough in theology.

Secondly, there is” the reign of confusion where boisterous anarchy seems to prevail.” This is evident in the Gospel. First John and then Jesus subvert the authority figures of their time. The kings and religious leaders, the “heroic figures,” become comic villains and objects of satirical attack. Greek literature valorized Kings and the Jewish culture valorized religious leaders (the Pharisees). Jesus called King Herod a “fox” and the Pharisees “blind guides,” “whitewashed tombs,” and “camel-swallowing gnat strainers.” Jesus subverted most of the cultural expectations of his day, reaching out to “sinners,” prostitutes, women (who were not viewed highly in that culture), children, old women, racial outcasts, heretics, and the IRS. To an upstanding Pharisee, Jesus’ message would have looked like anarchy. But viewed from within, the seeming anarchy is actually a reflection of the Kingdom of God.

Thirdly, there are “contests and attacks.” The most obvious of these is Jesus’ temptation by Satan. This temptation seen can be viewed in a comic way, with Satan as a stock comic vice character, who focuses on food, power, and comfort, and Jesus as the virtuous hero who avoids these worldly temptations. Jesus, in fact, delegitimizes evil in this scene–Satan is no longer the Prince of Darkness, and his pretensions have been reduced to nought. He becomes laughable, a character along the lines of Falstaff, Ebenezer Scrooge and Mr Krabs from SpongeBob SquarePants. Jesus does not merely show in this scene that he has power over evil. He goes a step further and shows that it is more reasonable to do good than evil, that evil is less appealing than good. In addition to this, there are other contests and attacks. The frequent battles with the pharisees are a contest in which Jesus repeatedly is the victor, often by his use of humor, irony, and parables. The miracles, too, represent a contest or attack, a battle between death (as represented by sickness, demons, etc.), and life, as embodied in Jesus Christ. And of course, the most important contest of the Gospel is the cross, which leads into the fourth element.

Stewart’s fourth element is  “ritual execution (of pharmakoi or King Carnival).” This element shows the importance of the resurrection. Some people have pointed out the similarity between the death-and-resurrection motif in Christianity and in other, pagan, religions in an attempt to discredit Christianity. But as G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and others have pointed out, this actually gives credence to Christianity. Christ is the fulfillment of the myths. He is similar to Dionysus because he is the real Dionysus, or, to put it differently, Dionysus is just a shadow or type of Christ. Christianity does not erase, suppress or destroy paganism; Christianity completes paganism.

There will possibly be more thoughts on this subject, and possibly there will be no more thoughts on this subject.

Current listening: Boxer by The National, “New Slang” by The Shins


One Comment leave one →
  1. through a glass darkly permalink
    January 27, 2013 6:55 am

    you crack me up Nick. I dig it. I feel as though dear old LeLe would be proud of this.

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