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In The Screwtape Letters, Lewis explored the relations between the fallen human condition and humor. Humor, he wrote, involves a sense of proportion and seeing oneself from the outside. The comic muse teaches us to humbly see ourselves as others see us, to have a perspective outside our own myopic view. We will be happier when we see and confess our sins. H. Allen Smith defines a humorist as a “fellow who realizes, first, that he is no better than anybody else, and second, that nobody else is either.”
The reason for the fall is the sin of pride—where everyone takes him- or herself too seriously. Satan, Chesterton reminds us, fell through force of gravity. He took himself too seriously. Pride drags us downward into an easy solemnity about ourselves. Thus we picture hell as a state where everyone is perpetually concerned about his own dignity and advancement, where everyone has a grievance, and where everyone lives the deadly serious passions of envy, self-importance, and resentment. In short, a college faculty meeting. As Garrison Keillor said, “Some people think it’s difficult to be a Christian and to laugh, but I think it’s the other way around. God writes a lot of comedy—it’s just that He has so many bad actors.”
But it is being truly serious about our miserable condition and about the hope of salvation that introduces an unexpected surprise—comedy. And grace arrives for Christians in the Incarnation, and it arrives with a Body. The Incarnation strikes a staggering blow at the Pharisees, the Gnostics, and anyone who denies the value of the physical world or those who try to be more spiritual than God. It is significant that, for Augustine, the Devil and the bad angels are without bodies.
For the Christian, the comic spirit is one of new life, feasting, banqueting, eating, drinking, and playing. This paradise is regained where heaven is described to be like a wedding feast or a sumptuous banquet.
God established Israel herself on a foundation of laughter. In the fresh tradition of C.S. Lewis, Frederick Buechner captured this genesis in all its wild, holy, and hilarious splendor in his Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy and Fairy Tale:
The place to start is with a woman laughing. She is an old woman, and after a lifetime in the desert, her face is cracked and rutted like a six-month drought. She hunches her shoulders around her eyes and starts to shake. She squinnies her eyes shut, and her laughter is all wheeze and tears running down as she rocks back and forth in her kitchen chair. She is laughing because she is pushing 91 hard and has just been told she is going to have a baby . . . The old woman’s name is Sarah, of course, and her old man’s name is Abraham and they are laughing at the idea of a baby’s being born in the geriatric ward and Medicare’s picking up the tab . . . Maybe the most interesting part of it all is that far from getting angry at them for laughing, God told them that when the baby was born he wanted them to name him Isaac, which in Hebrew means laughter. So you can say that God not only tolerated their laughter, but blessed it and in a sense joined in it himself.
As I have mentioned, I believe that a divine incongruity exists in our nature as spiritual animals. For Lewis, the oldest joke is that we have bodies. It makes us into buffoons; it humbles us when we try to be too dignified or too spiritual.
St. Francis called his body Brother Ass. “Exquisitely Right!” observed Lewis,
because no one in his senses can either revere or hate a donkey. It is a useful, sturdy, obstinate, patient, lovable and infuriating beast; deserving now the stick and now a carrot . . . So the body. There’s no living with it till we recognize that one of its functions in our lives is to play the part of the buffoon.
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