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[Editor’s note: This post is adapted from Jonathan Rogers’s portion of the Hutchmoot 2012 session entitled “The Gospel Uses of Comedy.”]
I love a good tragedy. Hamlet and Oedipus and Medea and Dr. Faustus and Macbeth have plenty to tell us about the human condition. But I don’t think they show us any more than Charlie Chaplin’s little tramp—loose of limb and baggy of trouser, continually embarrassed, forever getting in over his head, getting out again, escaping ruin not by wit or social influence or main strength, but by happy accident—by a kind of grace.
The tragic hero falls because he cannot come to terms with his own finitude. The comic hero survives because he can. The comic hero is able to say, “I’m only human,” which needn’t be a cop-out or an excuse for bad behavior, since there was a time when God himself became human and dwelt among us. You’re only human. Halleluiah! For human beings are exactly who God rescues in Christ.
I might as well start where everybody starts when talking about laughter in the Bible: Genesis 17-19 and the laughter of Abraham and Sarah, whose sardonic, self-protecting laughter got swallowed up by the laughter of joy. Russ Ramsey writes beautifully about this story in Behold the Lamb of God, and so does Sarah Clarkson in a recent Rabbit Room post. I commend both pieces to you. For that matter, I commend Frederick Buechner’s writing on the subject, in Telling the Story: the Bible as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.
You probably know this story already. Abraham was a hundred years old and Sarah was ninety. God had promised decades earlier that he would make a great nation of their offspring, but it wasn’t looking like it was going to happen, since they were childless. Abram had the one son Ishmael, whom he had fathered with Sarah’s serving woman Hagar in an effort to help God do his job, but Sarah still hadn’t borne any child of promise.
When God told Abraham once again that his wife was going to have a baby, he fell out laughing: “Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, ‘Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety, bear a child?’” What he said next is just as telling. “Oh that Ishmael might live before you.” Abraham laughed at God’s plan and offered his own in its place.
Shortly thereafter, the three angels appeared at Abraham’s tent and announced again that Sarah would bear a son within the year. “So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, ‘After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?’”
Abraham laughed. Sarah laughed. I don’t wish to suggest that either laugh was an evil laugh or even a consciously disrespectful laugh. It was probably involuntary laughter. Still this was laughter of self-protection, plastering over decades of disappointment and sorrow. It was sardonic laughter. It was the laughter of people who were saying, “Yeah, right! I’ve been around the block before. I know how things work around here.”
You know how this story pays off. A year later, Sarah had a baby, and she laughed again, this time not sarcastically but out of irrepressible joy. I love the way Buechner talks about it:
It all happened not of necessity, not inevitably, but gratuitously, freely, hilariously. And what was astonishing, gratuitious, hilarious was, of course, the grace of God. What could they do but laugh at the preposterousness of it, and they laughed until the tears ran down their cheeks.
They laughed sardonically when they heard the prediction. They laughed for joy when the prediction came true. So they named their boy “Laughter.” It’s a beautiful story. I love it. The spiritual ramifications are tremendous. Again, read Russ, Sarah, and Buechneron the subject.
But I want to draw your attention to something that Russ, Sarah, and Buechner mostly spare you from. I want to pay attention to the path by which Abraham and Sarah got from point A—the bitter laughter of the old and disappointed–to point B—the joyful laughter of a couple who understand how outlandishly they have been blessed.
Consider the simple biological facts of where babies come from. Remember, there is no suggestion whatsoever that Sarah got pregnant through immaculate conception or by any means other than the tried and true method. What I am pointing out is that some time within three months of the angels’ visit, a hundred-year-old Abraham and a ninety-year-old Sarah took the necessary steps to make a baby.
Pause for a moment and envision that. It may help to close your eyes. Take as long as you need.
I first pondered these peculiar facts after hearing an old radio preacher in Georgia some twenty-five years ago preaching on this text. I have forgotten everything about the sermon except one sentence spoken in a husky, suggestive voice: “Abraham looked over at Sarah, and she looked-ed good to him, and Sarah looked over at Abraham, and he looked-ed good to her . . .”
Do you think I’m making a dirty joke? Listen, I’m not the one who made the joke; it’s all right there in Genesis. Abraham and Sarah thought they knew how things were going to work out. They understood how the world works: you win some, you lose some. They had come to terms with the fact that they weren’t going to have any kids, in spite of what God had told them so many years before. In God’s apparent failure to keep his promise, they formed a Plan B, and they were working it. Abraham had impregnated Hagar, Ishmael was born. It wasn’t what they originally had in mind, but it was working. Abraham and Sarah had settled into the dignity of old age.
Then Abraham looked over at Sarah and she looked-ed good to him, and he looked-ed good to her, and next thing you know they’re engaged in most undignified behavior, and Sarah is pregnant with the child of the promise. She had laughed at the angels, but now the joke is on her—90 years old and pregnant!—and she laughed and laughed. Surely she said, “The joke’s on me—Halleluiah!” And Abraham surely said, “I’ve been such a fool! Halleluiah! … Halleluiah that I have been so wrong about how this universe works!”
There’s a deep pleasure in the gospel that nobody talks about very much, and it is the pleasure of saying, “Oh, What a fool I have been! I was so sure I knew how this thing was going to turn out. I shaped my life around a foolish assumption that the world was telling me the truth about itself and my place in it. I was so wrong! Halleluiah! I lived in fear of things that had no power to harm me! I thought I had to exert my will and get my way! But now I don’t have to anymore. Halleluiah!”
If I were a preacher, I would have an altar call, and all you would have to do would be to come down to the front and say, “Oh, what a fool I’ve been! I took myself so damned seriously!” I’m not using that word “damned” casually. Is there anything so damning as excessive self-regard?
I love what G.K. Chesterton has to say on this subject:
Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly. This has always been the instinct of Christian art. . . In the old Christian pictures the sky over every figure is like a blue or gold parachute. Every figure seems ready to fly up and float about in the heavens. The tattered cloak of the beggar will bear him up like the rayed plumes of the angels. But the kings in their heavy gold and the proud in their robes of purple will all of their nature sink downwards, for pride cannot rise to levity or levitation. Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One “settles down” into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness. . . . Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice. It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. . . . For solemnity flows out of men naturally; but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity.
The surest sign of a fool is a terror of being laughed at. And, ironically, that’s part of what makes him so laughable.
I realize that there is a delicate balance that I haven’t paid much attention to. We need to acknowledge the deep dignity of our fellow human beings. For that matter, we need to acknowledge our own deep dignity, and laughter in many cases (or perhaps I should say laughter in many kinds) doesn’t help us acknowledge or honor that dignity. Consider the oft-quoted passage from Lewis in “The Weight of Glory”:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare . . . There are no ‘ordinary’ people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilisations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendours.
My point, really, is this: all these immortals also have bodies. They live here in this world in bodies that make noises and smells, that sometimes fall down and sometimes lift them up, that fail them, that sometimes lead them into temptation and sometimes carry them into battle or into a hospital ward where they serve and love other immortals in their bodies. Every funny thing you ever saw or heard was funny because of some incongruity—and usually, this specific incongruity: you are a little lower than the angels, and yet you live here in this imperfect world in this imperfect body. Comedy acknowledges that we are body and soul both.
So if the history of Israel begins with a bawdy joke, so be it. Abraham—Exalted Father—and his Princess Sarah were the butts of a joke we’re still telling 3500 years later. The punch line isn’t just that Abraham and Sarah were ridiculous—the laughers becoming the laughed-at. The punch line is that they are themselves welcomed into the great joke that is the Kingdom of God—where (to borrow from Buechner) salvation can’t possibly happen because it can only impossibly happen.
Jonathan Rogers is the author of The Terrible Speed of Mercy, one of the finest biographies of Flannery O’Connor we've ever read. His other books include the Wilderking Trilogy–The Bark of the Bog Owl, The Secret of the Swamp King, and The Way of the Wilderking–as well as The World According to Narnia and a biography of Saint Patrick. He has spent most of his adult life in Nashville, Tennessee, where he and his wife Lou Alice are raising a houseful of robustious children.