The happy ending is justly scorned as a misrepresentation; for the world, as we know it… yields but one ending: death.
― Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces
The ancient Greeks thought of tragedies as “high art” and comedies as “low art.” They reckoned that tragedies were truthful engagements with the world as it is. Comedies, on the other hand, were considered to be frivolous escapes from life’s harsh realities. Still today, ‘Best Picture’ Oscars are much more likely to be awarded to dramas than comedies. We struggle to believe that there’s much depth or reality to comedies. We like them. We just don’t think they’re, well, serious.
Christians, though, should think differently. We ought to take comedies — true comedies anyway — with the utmost seriousness. The Bible, after all, is shaped like a comedy. It gives a blissfully happy ending for embodied, earthly life. While the rest of the world makes its peace with the grave and resigns itself to a tragic fate, Easter ought to make Christians think again. In particular we should have a more sophisticated view of the stories told in the world. We need to realise this: some rib-ticklers are really tragedies; and some tear-jerkers are really comedies.
Some rib-ticklers are really tragedies
Monty Python’s Life of Brian is considered by many the greatest comedy film of all time. I can understand why. The writing and performances are exquisitely crafted. I’ve often used excerpts from the film in sermons because their skewering of the pomposity and absurdity of human religion harks back strongly to the Biblical prophets. It harks back to Jesus himself. Jesus was constantly making fun of the “religious” (see Matthew 6 or Matthew 23 for some scorching take-downs of the first century “Bible-thumpers”).
In its day though Life of Brian drew howls of outrage from many religious conservatives. In Britain, Anglican Bishops appeared on television in their finery to denounce the film and its makers. But I think they may have objected to the wrong thing. Sharp humour is not a problem, or it least it shouldn’t be for those who have read their Bibles. Sharp humour directed at religion is not a problem either, in fact religion is the chief target of satire in the Bible. These aspects of Life of Brian should have been welcomed and celebrated.
Nevertheless there is still a problem with Life of Brian. The problem is not that the film is a comedy. The problem is that the film is not a comedy. It contains moments of pure hilarity but it is unquestionably a tragedy. The hero, Brian, is constantly mistaken for Jesus, and he ends up, like the true Messiah, crucified. Yet for Brian there is no resurrection, no rescue, no happily ever after. Instead there is a chorus of the crucified singing “Always look on the bright side of death, just before you draw your terminal breath.” These are not the words of a comedy. In fact you could not find more quintessentially tragic lines than the ones that end the film: “Life is quite absurd and death’s the final word.”
I submit that Life of Brian should be considered one of the all time great films. But it is not a great comedy. It is, instead, a great tragedy. And I mean that in every sense. It is a rib-tickling tragedy.
Some tear-jerkers are really comedies
The Lord of the Rings is perhaps the mirror image of Life of Brian. Its joyful ending is one to make you cry. That is by design. JRR Tolkien invented a word to describe the classic plot twist where tragedy turns to comedy. He called it a “eucatastrophe”, that is “a good catastrophe.” This is a glorious interruption, upending all our expectations. It’s an asteroid of pure joy landing in the midst of our sorrow. And precisely because it’s an unexpected clash of comedy and tragedy it provokes in us an awesome joy, a tear-filled wonder. It connects with the deepest reaches of the human soul. Tolkien wrote:
“The Resurrection was the greatest ‘eucatastrophe’ possible… and produces that essential emotion: Christian joy which produces tears because it is qualitatively so like sorrow, because it comes from those places where Joy and Sorrow are at one, reconciled, as selfishness and altruism are lost in Love.”
Think of John 21. Mary is distraught. She has come to the tomb to be near her Lord. Where have they taken him? All is lost. And then he speaks her name. That is the moment of eucatastrophe. And we can well imagine that now the tears really flow. Before it was an anxious whimper, now they come in waves. Before her chest was tight with fear, now her heart really aches. Before she was just about holding it together, now she falls apart: Joy and Sorrow, lost in Love.
Compare the two kinds of ending. Brian took us on a raucous journey, but we get to the end and realise it was all gallows-humor. Like the anxious man whistling through the graveyard to keep up his spirits, the laughter rings hollow. And it ends all too quickly. This is the human tragedy.
In Return of the King, Tolkien brings us a very different conclusion. Pippin, who may have contributed to Gandalf’s death, looks at him now — this risen lord — and sees the very opposite of hollow laughter:
In the wizard’s face he saw at first only lines of care and sorrow; though as he looked more intently he perceived that under all there was a great joy: a fountain of mirth enough to set a kingdom laughing, were it to gush forth.
This is Easter laughter and it’s priceless. In a world of laugh-out-loud tragedies, Jesus brings to weak failures like us an ending so good, we might weep. It is our heart’s deepest desire, the world’s true destiny: the tear-filled comedy.
Find out more at DivineComedy.info
Watch Glen’s series of videos on the theme of Easter and Comedy: