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Divine comedy: being a priest and a comedian

10 May 2019

Kate Bruce explores holy laughter

Simone Rudolphi

The Revd Kate Bruce performing stand-up comedy

The Revd Kate Bruce performing stand-up comedy

A FEW years ago, I decided to try my hand at stand-up comedy.

As a teacher of preaching, I have long believed that preachers can learn a great deal from stand-up comedians, especially in terms of delivery and timing. I feel I can watch comedy and call it work.

With this in mind, I wrote a routine, “Woman of the Cloth”, donned my clerical collar, and headed off to perform at some unlikely and mildly terrifying (and sticky) venues. People laughed. They didn’t throw bottles. There is something highly satisfying about going to a secular venue as the Vicar and making people laugh.

Along the way, I met two other priests, Ravi Holy (yes, his real name) and Maggy Whitehouse. Together we formed White Collar Comedy (News, 1 March).

Our thinking is that there is something essentially good about laughter — sacred, even. We want to share this in our comedy, which is essentially a humorous take on matters of church, faith, and religion. Our next stop is the Edinburgh Fringe.

BEING involved in this has made me reflect on the nature of laughter, and ask some critical questions. After all, theology is weighty, meaty, and mighty, dealing with matters of great import, and isn’t laughter just trivial, base, fleshy foolery? Can there really be a relationship between theology and laughter; and how might this tie into the nature of comic vision?

In the Old Testament, most references to laughter fall into the category of derision. “He who sits in the heavens laughs, the Lord derides them” (Psalm 2.4). In all the examples of Yahweh laughing, we witness the laughter of contempt at the behaviour of the wicked. God laughs the wicked to scorn. God’s laughter is a corrective which reveals human folly and small-mindedness.

There is no explicit example of Jesus laughing. We see him angry, tired, tempted, scorned, weeping, but we never read that he laughed, or even smiled. It is hard, however, to conceive of Christ’s life and ministry without laughter. Did he never giggle as a child as Mary tickled him or chased him around? Did he never experience the belly laughter that causes the eyes to leak? Would he have been welcomed at social gatherings if he sat in a dour stupor, muttering “Down with this sort of thing”? It is hard to conceive of Jesus not sharing in the joy of the healed and redeemed. Surely, when Zacchaeus offered back all he had defrauded and more, Jesus cracked a smile?

IT IS hard not to read the Bible and see laughter as a subterranean theme bubbling away underneath and within the texts. It helps here if we see the connection between laughter and the comedic spirit. The latter, often subversive, is concerned with hope, redemption, and fulfilment. Comedy sanctifies the ordinary and the humdrum, it makes outsides into insiders. Comedy inverts power structures and surprises us at every turn. Where such vision rules, laughter and joy are never far away. Comedy belongs to God.

God interrupts human life and uses unlikely people, and their stories often cause, if not outright laughter, at least a wry smile. Take Jonah. the most reluctant prophet. He runs away, gets eaten and spewed up by a whale, and when, finally, he does his job, and the Ninevites repent, he moans bitterly, “I knew this would happen.” There is something irresistible about God’s love which wins the day, in spite of Jonah’s reluctance.

God’s unlikely and wonderful choices come to a head in the call of Mary. In the Magnificat, she gives voice to the upside-down nature of the divine comedy: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly.” These powerful, subversive words are given voice by a peasant girl.

There is a strong comedic vein here that continues in the life of her son. Jesus the King, born in dust and dirt, communicates the essential truth that this is where God is to be found, where laughter and tears often mingle. Divine comedy treasures the little things. and seeks hope in dark places.

This comedic vein runs through the Gospels. People with logs in their eyes are cautioned about removing specks from the eyes of others. Publicans and sinners are welcomed. Women are valued. Children are named as closer to the Kingdom than the great and the good. Jesus the king enters Jerusalem on a donkey, in a parody of pageantry: power expressed in lowliness, thorns for a crown.

The epitome of divine laughter is seen in the garden in the early morning light, in a delightful case of mistaken identity. As the “gardener” utters her name, “Mary”, surely laughter rings out across eternity.

THE laughter of the divine comedy is so very different from the laughter of the online troll, or the fat-shaming bully, or the braying hectoring of political opponents. There is more than a whiff of sulphur in such sniggering, gurning mockery — it is a million miles away from God’s comedy. This sulphurous smirking seeks to close down the other, to submerge him or her in shame, whereas God seeks to redeem, lift up, make whole, and release.

We need to ask ourselves: to what end is our laughter? Does it bind individuals into a community, enjoying shared insight, and generating warmth and a sense of belonging? Does it offer a truthful revelation, however mundane the subject matter?

Such observations of the little details of our lives can bring the relief of shared laughter: an antidote to the fragmented mistrust and suspicion that hobbles communities. Laughter is not a trivial matter — yoked to the divine comedy, it has the prophetic drive to speak truth to power. The key question about any laughter is the nature of the comedic vision underpinning it. Will it build up and set free, or bind up and put down?

Can we find a place for laughter that is redemptive, even holy — a laughter that does not deny the horrors of the world, but exists in spite of them with a defiant air? This is the gallows humour that expresses the sheer will to live in an expression of hope. Such laughter has the potential to lift our vision, to bring delight and joy. This is the laughter of the Fool.

Ancient and medieval monarchies recognised the need for the Fool, not merely for entertainment, but also to help the king laugh at himself. The jester is within the court circle, and yet stands outside of it. He can speak truth to power, but runs the risk of being whipped for his words. Truth-telling is a serious and costly undertaking which, perhaps, only a fool would embrace. The jester’s job is to question that which seems self-evident.

We see Jesus doing exactly this in many of his encounters and parables. It is self-evident to the Pharisee that the woman who anoints Jesus’s feet is a worthless sinner (Luke 7.36-50); it is clear to the disciples that the storm will kill them (Mark 4.38-40), and to the crowds that Zacchaeus is a thieving rogue (Luke 19.1-9). In each story, Jesus reveals the “more” in the situation. Preaching in the footsteps of the divine Fool will find preachers speaking words of dangerous wisdom, refusing to be hemmed in by the horizon of what seems self-evident.

COMEDY reminds us of some essential theological themes. God is immanent, found in the mud and mess. The little and the local matter profoundly in the economy of God, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He shares our postcode.

Comedy reminds us of the need to laugh at our foibles and foolishness, pomp and pride. Stripped of all this, we are essentially, as adults, merely wrinkly children. When we laugh at ourselves, we acknowledge our fallibility and tendency to the ridiculous. This increases our capacity for compassion and loving-kindness.

Comedic vision demands that we see the “more” in the present reality. Such comedic insight helps us to detach ourselves from all that is not God; it gives us clearer vision and a healthy perspective. Genuine comedic vision scours away our pride and self-consciousness, and knocks down the barricades of fear and despair.

We need such comedic vision. We need the laughter that flows from it. When we laugh together, we find unity. We need laughter in our faith. When Christianity denies the place and purpose of laughter, it becomes grey and tedious, drab and joyless: an empty husk of its true identity.

Piety without laughter will, sooner or later, lead to persecution as lines are drawn between the insiders and the outsiders. Stones tend to get hurled when the comedic vision is blindfolded. Laughter stemming from the divine comedic vision is a serious matter — joyfully serious.

The Revd Dr Kate Bruce is a Chaplain to the RAF.

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