Faithful Laughter: C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Peter L. Berger on Faith and Comedy

I wrote this awhile ago for an Inklings conference, but COVID has me thinking about the vital role of humour in our lives and in Christian faith: humour as a window to something greater than the present scene. Note the flood of parody songs on YouTube with the world “coronavirus” in the lyrics. Laughter can be a rumour of glory, said Peter Berger. In terms of this blog, an indication of the sensus divinitatis.

I grew up with an annoying device called a laughing machine. A press of the button and you were struck by the roar of maniacal laughter. I was mesmerized by this. Since transitioning to the academic world, one of my favourite subjects to investigate has been humour, and especially its connection to faith. Here I discuss comedy, laughter, and joy in light of three great apologists: A Catholic, an Anglican, and a Lutheran. I try to bring them all together via a Calvinist philosopher of aesthetics. See if you think I succeeded.

I. Chesterton and Lewis:  A Comic Comparison

I must admit when I began my research on this topic my prejudice was towards the Catholic Chesterton as the more natural and accomplished comic.  Chesterton is perpetually unable to sever himself from his sense of humour and has been called “the jolly journalist” “the laughing prophet” and “the jester of genius.”  Few authors who summarize his oeuvre will neglect to mention his wit.  He was known to love children, was fascinated with puppet shows and nursery rhymes, and would never miss an opportunity to make a self-deprecating remark.  Even with subject matter as heavy as orthodoxy, Chesterton can’t refrain at moments from a certain lightheartedness.

“A characteristic of the great saints” says Chesterton in a famous passage in the book, “is their power of levity. Angels can fly because they can take themselves lightly… 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…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 Anglican Lewis on the other hand, never came across to me that way.  I know he wrote children’s books and his autobiography is entitled Surprised by Joy but his humour was shrouded in the tweed jacket and pipe smoke of a serious Oxford professor.  Maybe I was biased by Anthony Hopkins’ rather sombre portrayal in Shadowlands, or more significantly, by my tour guide in England who took me through Lewis’ house and church and described how Lewis at times had little time for the preacher’s sermon, let alone small talk and would often rush out of the service.  Lewis always seemed more a serious apologist than a jester.

If Chesterton spoke of levity and lightness, Lewis wrote about the “weight of glory.”  In his book of heaven and hell, The Great Divorce, the closer people get to heaven, the more solid they become.  It is ironic that it is the hulking mass of overweight Chesterton who says “its easy to be heavy; hard to be light.” Is the future going to be solid or a gas?

Apparently during the famous Bernard Shaw vs. Chesterton debate Shaw patted Chesterton on his huge belly and said, “What are you going to name it when it’s born?”  Chesterton replied; “If it is a boy I shall call him John; if a girl, I shall name her Mary; but if it’s gas I shall call it George Bernard Shaw.”

I found that anecdote in this book by Terry Lindvall: Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of C. S. Lewis. (Thomas Nelson, 1996). Over 400 pages of quotes and references to the humour of Lewis (unfortunately without an index).  More a catalogue or inventory than a scholarly analysis, this book is jam-packed with references to the thread of comedy in Lewis and many of his contemporaries. The book is divided according to the four origins of laughter outlined in The Screwtape Letters.  In the eleventh letter to Wormword, uncle Screwtape names joy, fun, the joke proper, and flippancy.  Lindvall then give about 100 pages to each type of comedy as found in Lewis’s various books and he brings to life much of what was always there, but which I, up until then, did not consider as central to Lewis’ character or oeuvre.  I am now convinced otherwise.

I was surprised and delighted to find this book…

Interesting enough, Lindvall can’t keep from quoting Chesterton every couple of pages. At one point half way through (219) he compares the two writers.

“Lewis, was not a gag writer of belly laughter.  His humour was more thoughtful, dry, and whimsical.  Chesterton could summon up the boffo [successful] guffaws from his readers with his outrageous observations; Lewis would bring a knowing smile and a titter or two.  But the lack of volume in the sound of laughter does not signify the lack of humour or comedy in his writings.  He enjoyed the games and adventures of life and passed on his delight in this odd, round, funny planet and its peculiar earthlings.  His writing were immersed in this own laughter in the fun and play of life.” (219)

Lindvall says Lewis’ humour was more reflective and dry.  Chesterton was quicker to risk the ridiculous, and even boasted of his vulgarity (283).  But that comment comes at the end of the section on “fun”, which may not normally be the strength of an Oxford professor.  Still, Lewis’ brother said of Lewis: “a man with an outstanding gift for … laughter and the love of friends… a remarkable talent for …friendship of an uproarious kind.” 406  Lewis loved his time at the pub; he confessed: “There’s no sound I like better than adult male laughter.” 

Lewis’ friend and biographer George Sayer did not appreciate the Anthony Hopkins’ character in Shadowlands.  Hopkins, he says, “was usually solemn and frankly, rather dull—something Lewis never was… [Lewis] was usually cheerful.” (from Martindale review of Lewis in Christian Scholars Review).

II. Excursus:  Chesterton’s Influence on Lewis

I found a small essay on “The Christian Influence of G. K. Chesterton” on Lewis by Aiden Mackey. First of all, while I believe they never actually met, both Lewis and Chesterton found inspiration, if not something compelling them to Christian faith, in George MacDonald’s writings, such as The Princess and the Goblin.

Lewis discovery of Chesterton came early in 1918 while he was a soldier recovering in hospital from trench fever.  He was reading Chesterton’s essays and had no idea who he was but “his humour was of the kind which I like best… I liked him for his goodness.”  He goes on to say, “In reading Chesterton, as in reading MacDonald, I did not know what I was letting myself in for.  A young man who wishes to remain a sound Atheist cannot be too careful of his reading.  There are traps everywhere… God is, if I may say it, very unscrupulous.”

Mackey goes on to say that Chesterton became a staple for Lewis.  They shared a common orthodox understanding of Christian faith but also an affection for the ordinary man and woman coupled with a resistance to patronizing experts.  We might add here as well, that they shared a love for good humour.

III.  Other Christian Humourists:  An Aesthetic Apologetic

I want to add a more recent writer to this conversation of humour enthusiasts: sociologist of religion and Lutheran Peter Ludwig Berger.

 In his earlier work such as Rumors of Angels (1969), Berger maintains that the reality of pluralism creates difficulties not only for religious certainty but for religious belief in general. The old “plausibility structures” that created a taken-for-granted religious worldview are challenged as they jostle against competing perspectives. He elaborates on these social conditions in places like Homeless Minds (1973) and The Heretical Imperative (1979) suggesting that faith is endangered by modern consciousness.

Given this precarious vision for faith in modernity, Berger maintains that religious conviction would do better to rest not so much on texts and institutions but rather in human experience itself. One universal human experience is that of comedy and laughter.  In comedy, he explains, human beings can experience “transcendence”—they can rise above their current situation, no matter how onerous it might be. The laughter not only testifies to another possible world, but can even “redeem” life in the here and now. For example, even in the midst of the worst concentration camp, making a joke about the guards may be not only a form of resistance, but a signal that things might end up all right in the end.  The present gloomy circumstances do not have the last word, or the last laugh.  Humour is, in effect, a Pascalian “reason of the heart.” Later in life Berger wrote a whole book on such heavenly humour called Redeeming Laughter.

An expensive book, but a true prize.

The question then arises:  can the experience of joy and fun become an apologetic for Christian faith? (I note that Os Guinness has a new book out called Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion (IVP 2019). But that’s another blog entry to come…)

One might compare Berger’s redemptive laughter with C. S. Lewis’ fleeting experiences of joy, which were sign posts for him of something better yet to come—the ideal homeland we never find.  But this joy of Lewis’ was more of a longing or yearning than laughter, more of a romantic feeling than a comic one.  Still, it was a desire that pointed to better things to come—the possibility of a happy ending.

Chesterton’s joy may be more giddy:  it is best characterized as a teeming excitement for life.  Having plumbed the depths of “moral anarchy within” Chesterton says in his Autobiography that he had this “strong inward impulse to revolt…to throw off this nightmare.”  What followed for him was the invention of “a rudimentary and makeshift mystical theory” that was essentially this: “that even mere existence, reduced to its most primary limits, was extraordinary enough to be exciting.  Anything was magnificent compared with nothing.  Even if the very daylight were a dream, it was a daydream…”  He says elsewhere: “I have experienced the mere excitement of existence in places that would commonly be called as dull as ditch-water.  And, by the way, is ditch-water dull?  Naturalists with microscopes have told me that it teems with quiet fun.” (from Mackey’s article p. 73-74)

With Lewis, joy is an elusive feeling.  With Chesterton, it’s a playful way of perceiving the world.  For Berger, the joy that comes with comedy is a dimension of life in its own right, separate even from aesthetics, under the rubric of play.  Yet the way Berger speaks of the comic sounds so much like notions of beauty.  He says its “fragile, fugitive, sometimes hard to remember… something of a mystery.” (xvii)  There are other reasons that I could give to show Berger is dabbling more in aesthetics than he imagines, but take my word for it now.   

So, contrary to Berger, I wonder if there is some aesthetic theory that might bring all three together, some notion of “comic beauty” or a “joyful aesthetic.”

IV. Seerveld’s Allusiveness

This is where our Calvinist thinker comes in. I would suggest the aesthetic theory of Christian philosopher Calvin Seerveld offers just that.  In his book Rainbows for a Fallen World he maintains that aesthetics need not even be pinned on the notion of beauty.  Instead, he suggests that we examine the “how” of the aesthetic dimension of life—what it does rather than its essence.  Aesthetics in this case is part of the fabric of God-given nature itself—something we only need to be open and disciplined to perceive. 

What is it?  His conclusion is that the aesthetic quality of life is characterized by allusiveness—a nuancedness or imaginativity.  This includes the beautiful harmony of math and music, but it also the grotesque monstrousness of a crime, as well as the wit one might bring to a social event, the humourous movements of a body, and the festive celebration of religious ritual.

Playfulness is a significant supportive moment in this understanding of aesthetics.  It’s a readiness to fool around, an impulse to frolic and flair, a suppleness in one’s consciousness, a penchant for incongruity. 

This sort of imaginativity allows Chesterton to see quiet fun in ditch-water and Lewis to see joy as a pointer to something more.  It is also what fuels the comic experience that Berger talks about.  In effect, comedy is a way of perceiving the world, an aesthetic sense which, unless a comforting lie or distraction from the tragic real, ultimately points to the U-shaped plot of history:  the fact that things will turn up in the end for good.  In effect, joy becomes a pointer to providence and the telos of God’s redemptive plan.

Let us examine laughter a little closer.  Lindvall describes Lewis’ most cherished theory of laughter to be what is called the “incongruity theory”: laughter erupts due to the disproportion between what we expect and what we see.  Lewis’ apparently saw this theory grounded in the two incongruous dimensions of human nature—being dust of the earth and breath of God at the same time.  We are caught between what we ought to be and what we in fact are.

“Once accept the Christian doctrine that a man was originally a unity and that the present division is unnatural,” said Lewis in Miracles, “[then] all the phenomena fall into place.  It would be fantastic to suggest that the doctrine was devised to explain our enjoyment of a chapter in Rabelais… It does so none the less.” (L, 237)

Chesterton would undoubted agree.  He says in All Things Considered:

“If you really ask yourself why we laugh at a man sitting down suddenly in the street, you will discover that the reason is not only recondite [understood only by experts], but ultimately religious. All the jokes about men sitting down on their hats are really theological jokes; they are concerned with the Dual Nature of Man. They refer to the primary paradox that man is superior to all the things around him and yet is at their mercy.”

There is also a delightful passage where Chesterton describes a man chasing his hat.  The ordinary is so full of mystery for him: the imageo dei running after a recalcitrant hat. Incongruity.

While this approach looks back to creation and human nature rather than ahead to a new earth, it also requires the perception of a certain allusiveness in the very fabric of things.

One significant difference with Berger from the rest. Berger believes the experience of the comic and the signal of transcendence that it betrays are empirically discernible.  “The experience of the comic,” he says, “is, finally, a promise of redemption.  Religious faith is the intuition …that the promise will be kept.” (x) Philosopher Simon Critchley, quite to the contrary, says there is nothing redemptive about laughter. If it is a redemptive experience, Critchley has missed it completely. This is why I believe both Lewis and Chesterton would say any hint of redemption in joy or laughter comes as a gift of faith, opening your eyes to the true and deep structure of reality. The empirical is always still the perception of a person.

V.  Chesterton, Lewis, and Calvin

I hope you can see how I’m trying to build an ecumenicism around laughter and the Christian faith: Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and Calvinists—all suggesting the comic is a dimension of creation that, through the eyes of faith, hints of joy and laughter as blessed and real and sure. Indeed, laughter has been corrupted by the Fall, and so laughter is used to mock, denigrate, and destroy what is good. But its not beyond redemption.

I’m Calvinian in matters of Christian faith, and John Calvin was often an anxious and sombre person. Calvinists actually get a bad rap in Chesterton’s writing, where Puritans are commonly caricatured as austere, gloomy sorts. Lindvall refutes this stereotype, saying quite the opposite:  Calvinists love good food and drink, as their special aversion was “bishops, not beer.”  He then quotes Lewis with this ironic remark:

“On many questions and specially in view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party, if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries. The idea that a Puritan was a repressed and repressive person would have astonished Sir Thomas More and Luther about equally.” 341

I consider it a prize to find a passage like this.  That Chesterton be compared to a Calvinist offers a blessed incongruity, and that Lewis should be the one to suggest it, seals its value for my at times Calvinian soul. There is more to be said on this, but for now, I’ve brought the Catholic Chesterton together with the Anglican Lewis and the Lutheran Berger to suggest that they share a delight in God’s gift of laughter expounded in a Calvinist aesthetic, and that this laughter can truly be a prelude to faith. Indeed, laughter became such for Sarah and Abraham, and there lies the origin of the Judeo-Christian covenant with God, and ultimately, the humourous beginnings of the joyful but suffering Messiah.

P.S. When Cal Seerveld read this blog, he wrote me saying, “You catch what I was after in “Ordinary aesthetic life” (in Normative Aesthetics, p. 122-125) I also agree with you when I say: ‘Tell me what a man laughs at, and without judging the heart, I’ll have a sound litmus reading on the calibre of his faith-commitment, no matter what the worldview be he says he holds’ (132).”

4 thoughts on “Faithful Laughter: C. S. Lewis, G. K. Chesterton, and Peter L. Berger on Faith and Comedy

  1. Peter,

    Thanks for sharing this. Very timely. Christian joy is a powerful form of witness especially in circumstances like we are going through now. Hope and joy–powerful allies that cannot be counterfeited!



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