Saturday, October 30, 2010

Comedy and the Devil

My first hint was the fact that they were opposed to Halloween. Foolishly, I ignored this until he sat down before me with a kind of stolid contempt.

“You call yourself a Christian?” he said to me, peering. “How can you be a Christian and perform this kind of comedy?”

I had driven over an hour to meet with this man, a winery owner in rural Missouri, who was interested in booking some of the murder mysteries we offer through our secular theater company, Upstage Productions. I had sent him a promotional packet and a DVD, which includes clips from some of our dinner theater shows, all of which are PG-13 Рno real vulgarity, lots of satire, silly humor, and some suggestive moments (more with crowds that are rowdy, less with tame crowds). The owner had seen the video and was scandalized, even though the material on the video is as risqu̩ as a Carol Burnette sketch from the 1970s.

I had noticed flyers indicating that the winery was the meeting place for a local Protestant worship group, and that on October 31 they would be presenting a short drama about Martin Luther – which the owner told me was presented as an “alternative to Halloween”.

Now I think it’s important that we not fool ourselves and overlook the Warning Signs. There are Warning Signs everywhere in life, and I’m usually busy ignoring them. For example, if a man likes Joan Rivers and has seen The Wizard of Oz a dozen times and has posters of Lady Gaga on his wall – those are Warning Signs. If an actor has trouble making it to a noon audition and is rubbing sleep from his eyes and smells strongly of cigarette smoke – those are Warning Signs. If a parish calls itself a “community of believers”, has banners everywhere and a drum set that’s more prominent than the Blessed Sacrament – those are Warning Signs.

Likewise when Halloween is attacked and laughter is suspect and a person says to a stranger, “You call yourself a Christian?” – those are Warning Signs.

I could have walked out. I was certainly tempted to. But the thing that prevented me was the thought that this guy means well. He is a brother in Christ, and he is concerned for the integrity of the practice of the Faith, though from his tone and demeanor he couldn’t care less for the destiny of my soul. Yes, there’s no real charity at work in his confrontation of me, I thought, but there is at least beneath a cloak of self-righteousness a true desire to follow Our Lord and to oppose the sins of the world. Clearly, I thought, if our promotional video offends him, he should never book our shows, and if he did I would be under a kind of pressure and bitter censorship that would prevent me from doing what he’d be paying me to do, but he raises a valid point. How can a Christian perform suggestive humor? Nasty though he’s being to me, I thought, I owe him an explanation.

However, I am reluctant to write on this point, as I was reluctant to address the issue with this winery owner. The fact is that you can’t give someone a sense of humor by explaining a joke. Neither can you explain Halloween to a Halloween-o-phobe. You could try to point out that dressing up and having fun on Halloween is not the service of Satan, but the mockery of Satan and the terrifying yet ridiculous single-mindedness of his demons; it is tweaking the prideful nose of the devil. You could try to point out that Halloween is the preparation and vigil for the great solemnity of All Saints and the feast of all souls – days which honor the dead, especially those who have been blessed by Christ with holiness and a share of the Father’s Heavenly Kingdom. But rational arguments are of no avail with such people. You can no more defend Halloween to a Puritan than you can explain a joke to someone who doesn’t get it. This is because Halloween-o-phobia is not a rational thing in and of itself, but a symptom of a far deeper spiritual error. It is the fruit of the Pharisee. It is the poisonous apple that has fallen from the tree of Puritanism. The roots that produce it go deep. It is a pernicious heresy.

Now to give this winery owner and fellow Christian (though heretic) his due, he and I no doubt shared the vast bulk of the tenets of the Catholic Faith – belief in the divinity of Christ, the necessity of salvation, the danger of sin, the expiation of the cross, the immortality of the soul, and so forth. Where he differed, and what cut him off most markedly from full communion in the Church, is in his belief of guaranteed salvation to those who profess, and what flows from that belief, the pride of presumption. Behind that was the great mood that all Puritans share – hatred of fun.

Again, though, the points he made were worth addressing. He said that as a kid he used to love Red Skelton. Red Skelton could be funny without being the least bit off-color. Why do comics today feel compelled to aim at the lowest common denominator? Why are they wallowing in mire?

The same can be said for “Goths” and people who become fascinated with the occult. Indeed, Satan is a real and powerful enemy and the trappings of Halloween can often draw some in to an obsession with the realm of darkness that lasts longer than that one night, leading to a morbidity of the imagination and a true danger for the soul.

I do not deny, then, that most comedy in the popular culture of our day is rancid, spiteful, self-serving and crude, nor do I deny that Halloween can indeed be used as a cover for interest in the occult. We did, therefore, agree on much. So did he have a point when he said, in so many words, that a Christian should not find humor in the flesh or in sins of the flesh? I tried to address the question at its root.

“Sin is funny,” I said. “In our mystery Slay It Again, Sam, the Humphrey Bogart character, after Ingmar Bergman leaves him, enters into a purely physical relationship with his personal secretary, Brandi, played by a woman in the audience. We make it clear that their relationship is not a chaste one, and we get some laughs from that.”

“An affair is a serious sin! It is never funny!” the man objected.

“Well, fornication is indeed a serious sin,” I replied, “but we are all sinners. Made in the image and likeness of God, we nevertheless waste our lives on things that are unworthy of us – like fornication, and anger, and greed. Everyone in Slay It Again, Sam is searching with a passionate greed for the Maltese Chicken, a rubber chicken worth millions of dollars. They’re willing to kill each other to get it. This is funny. It’s funny because it’s incongruous. It’s not what we should be doing. It’s not what we were made to do. It shows how ridiculous we are when we try to act like little gods, when we go after only the things we want. But it was ever thus. Don’t you see? Without being able to laugh at our sinfulness, it’s far too easy to take ourselves seriously. Humor is a form of humility. We’re all in this boat together. We’re all sinners, and we might as well acknowledge that and laugh at it.”

“For that matter,” he replied, “Murder is a sin. You’re making light of murder in your ‘murder mysteries’.”

“There’s a difference between the depiction of sin and the endorsement of sin,” I answered. “If sin were never to be made fun of or examined, all drama would have to be banned, for that is what all drama is about. Hamlet revolves around murder – and also revenge and lust and so forth – all serious sins, and all examined seriously in drama. Should we never perform Hamlet? Never perform any drama – serious or humorous? The Puritans banned drama once, you know …”

But he was peering at me with an even colder stare.

I concluded. “Humor comes from God. It is a divine gift. God has a sense of humor. If He didn’t, we wouldn’t. We couldn’t. If you reject depicting the sinfulness of man and laughing at it, you’re playing right in to Satan’s prideful hands, and you are giving up a gift that only a creature with reason and will could have, a gift you should cherish, use properly, and not suppress. You are giving up a sense of humor.”

I thanked him for meeting with me and left. I knew it was both a failed sales call and probably a failed witness.

How tragic it is (and also how funny) that we are in a world where the Church is split in two – heterodox liberalists rejecting the full message of Christ so that they can indulge their flesh, and heterodox Puritans rejecting the full message of Christ so that they can indulge their pride.

May the Lord have mercy on us, and may we never back down from making fun of ourselves, or from having fun in making it.


The Unknown Poet said...

My friend, Rod Bennett, wrote on this subject ten years ago much better than I did just today. I hope he won't mind my quoting him at length from the conlcusion of his article in defence of Halloween.

Rod writes ...

" ... But just because a thing is subject to abuse doesn’t mean the thing itself is evil — a principle that our Evangelical friends have sometimes forgotten when the subject was wine, and we ourselves have often needed to be reminded of when the subject was sex.

Yet it isn’t the puritanical aspect of Evangelicalism that causes me to worry about a possible descent towards the Jehovah’s Witnesses. It’s the knee-jerk response that Halloween is to be feared solely because it has “pagan origins.” The truth is that a good deal of what all of us do every day has pagan origins. The mathematics we use has pagan origins; our form of government has pagan origins; the very letters with which this sentence is written have pagan origins. In fact, most of the churches from which these anti-paganism sermons issue are, architecturally speaking, Greek revival temples in the “neo-classical style.” So “pagan origins” alone isn’t quite enough to damn Halloween all by itself. As a matter of fact, it’s one of the great glories of Christianity that it does save and redeem and baptize pagan things — ourselves included!

Jehovah’s Witnesses, on the other hand, profess to despise everything associated with our pre-Christian past. They especially despise the practices of the Catholic Church that redeem various elements of that pre-Christian past. They teach their disciples to hate and fear all holy days and holidays alike, and will have nothing to do with either Christmas or Easter for precisely the same reasons that Evangelicals are now despising Halloween.

And this is the reason I have found it worthwhile to mount, from time to time, a Christian defense of Halloween. Because one day — perhaps not too long from now — my own friends and relatives are going to feel forced, by their own careless presuppositions, to drop the other shoe on all holidays, to spend December without Christmas, and springtime without Easter, to go to a ballgame and refuse to sing the National Anthem.

If you find, as I do, that such a prospect makes your skin crawl a little, I hope you’ll join me tonight in soaping a few windows or turning over an outhouse or two. For truth’s sake."

The Unknown Poet said...

And of course I should have quoted Chesterton, who says in a few sentences what took me a whole blog post:

"It is not funny that anything else should fall down; only that a man should fall down.. Why do we laugh? Because it is a gravely religious matter: it is the Fall of Man. Only man can be absurd: for only man can be dignified." - G. K. Chesterton, "All Things Considered"

Brian Sullivan said...

"Warning signs" reminded me of this

Baron Korf said...

I find one thing in common between those who say that everything is a sin and nothing is a sin: they are lazy. Neither wants to examine their own lives.

Father Tom said...

I've come to realise that laughter is part of Heaven, and Hell (on the other hand) is a terribly serious place. I wrote something on this years ago when I was a hospital chaplain, visiting patients in a psychiatric ward:

Thanks for the post!

Benjamin. said...

I know you from someone I follow on twitter who posted about "Religion in The Modern World."
Anyhow, I have thought of this whole idea. I realize the puritans, in addition to insisting it was evil to show the sins, or act them out, found it, I believe, vain entertainment.
Although I do disagree with them on this, (you can glorify God in entertainment, just as it was fine for men to have feasts,) I don't think it is a good idea to suggest that something is wrong just because it was what the puritans thought. Though they had many twisted ideas, I think they wanted well in some respects.

Anyhow, are you all Roman Catholic?
I got the impression you were, (I am not.) That is another issue when discussing these things.