I have been thinking recently about tragedy and comedy. These two staples of the literary world are often spoken of but not always understood. I know I don’t understand them very well but I am prepared to venture a few remarks nonetheless.
Earlier this spring I attended a conference in which one of the speakers made a passing comment about the tragic and the comic. He noted that the tragic in life tends to bring us to a place of self-absorption while the comic has the effect of taking us out of ourselves. And so it was suggested that while classical culture tends to be “tragic”, Christianity is best understood as “comic”.
To be clear, speaking of Christianity as comic should not lead us to think in terms of television sitcoms or the current fare in stand-up comedy. Rather the comic is understood as life winning over death, as hope trumping despair and joy taking precedence over sadness. Life is a mixture of darkness and light, of good and bad, of treacherous waters and calm seas. Our task is to negotiate our way through these contrasting realities and to discern whether to accept the account of the writer of Ecclesiastes or St. Paul. Is all vanity, or do we have grounds for hope and the promise of life to come?
The fabric of life is woven with elements of both tragedy and comedy, and the line between them is often very thin. However we should not think that if it is comedy it is not serious. Comedy is a signal of transcendence and can readily play together with the serious bits of life.
With tragedy there is predictability while comedy involves the element of surprise. Humour is able to bypass the merely rational and predictable and lead us to discover something new and unexpected. What has been called “deep comedy” serves to mark hope amidst the chaotic landscape of life. Traditionally the tragic calls for the heroic acceptance of the fact there is no way out. Comedy brings (unexpected) resolution.
A couple of biblical stories illustrate this point. Abraham and Sarah are promised a child and they are laughing at this preposterous idea that as members of the geriatric set they will soon be proud parents of a new baby. Isaac, whose name means “laughter”, is the fulfillment of that promise and he Tragedy and comedy continued from page 1 launches the history of God’s chosen people. In laughter there is hope.
The second story is of two disciples walking the seven miles or so along the road to Emmaus just after that fateful weekend of Jesus’ death. This story is referred to by one author as the funniest incident in the Bible. Here are these two discouraged figures who “begin to pour out their sorrows while … Jesus nods and sympathizes” and then Jesus goes on to give them “a massive bible study” on why the messiah must die.
Soon they realize with whom they have been in conversation – he disappears and they – dogged tired though they are – run all the way back to Jerusalem to tell their story only to find that Jesus has already appeared to those in Jerusalem. W.H. Auden has written of the depth of Christian society’s comedy suggesting that …while classical comedy believes that rascals should get the drubbing they deserve,
Christian comedy believes we are forbidden to judge others and it is our duty to forgive each other. In classical comedy the characters are exposed and punished: when the curtain falls, the audience is laughing and those on stage are in tears. In Christian comedy the characters are exposed and forgiven: when the curtain falls, the audience and the characters are laughing together.
Artistry done out of the comedic vision of the gospel will see no need to avoid the serious but will recognize that side of our human journey. Even the tragic will not be ignored. It will be readily acknowledged, not as defining human existence, but as a thread in our journey which though perhaps inevitable is not definitive of our situation. It will be artistry that preserves and brings an element of surprise of play and of laughter and it is precisely there that we find a haven of hope which allows us to transcend the dark and tragic side of things.
Our calling is not to endure the world but to negotiate our way through it confident that its very nature is comedic, that surprises will come and when all is said and done that there will be laughter at the end of the play, laughter that will be shared by heaven and earth.
❈ ❈ ❈
We continue to be grateful for all in the Imago network. Our work continues to expand and the network broadens. There are exciting prospects for the days ahead and we will do our best to keep you informed hoping that you will be able to participate in some of the events taking place. We are excited about the new projects that have been added to the roster. You can find out more at our website. Thank you to all who support Imago in one way or another we are grateful for your participation with us in working to promote the arts.
Originally Published in 2005