Vail Daily column: Don’t laugh off Christ the clown
Ryan Summerlin April 19, 2014
Christ the clown. Jesus the jester.
Do these artistic images make you smile or scowl?
Using a clown as Christ’s graphic image invites negative reactions. Some listeners find repugnant this identity of Jesus with a clown. They associate it with clowning around. Christians have every right to be insulted if, by calling Christ a clown, what’s suggested is a goofy circus entertainer.
When artists throughout the centuries depicted Christ, the clown, they either delighted non-Christians or disturbed believers. The clown depicting Christ in memorable paintings isn’t a zany imp who jumps out of barrels or dresses in loud colors.
See Christ, the clown, in a Shakespearean sense. Irrepressible Falstaff, a bawdy robber, led village rustics. He quaffed liquor and used strong language, laced with sexual innuendos.
When these Shakespearean clowns appear on stage, the audience needs to be alert. A surface reading shows the Bard inserting comic relief in scripts. But Falstaff and his jovial band of simpletons aren’t as naive as they appear. These clowns say what’s true. They verbally joust with pretentious power-brokers who use falsity to candy-coat what’s true.
Similarly, Jesus depicted as a jester points to gallant days when knights rescued ladies-in-waiting. A court clown played the role of a fool. His tomfoolery tickled funny bones of anxious dwellers trapped inside castle walls.
A jester’s job was to tell the truth. However, it wasn’t straight-as-an-arrow talk. A jester used circumlocution. He talked around the truth, using outlandish comparisons, illustrated with side-splitting pratfalls.
“The Fool is innocent, spontaneous and joyful, even Christ-like,” observed English painter Cecil Collins. “As a result, he may be ridiculed by conventional society, although he has the sight which they have lost.”
God didn’t clown around when rolling away a boulder from Christ’s empty tomb. We are mystified by how the Earth tilts on its axis; yet we walk upright. Scientists explain this marvel. But Christ’s empty tomb defies understanding. It’s inexplicable.
Acting the part of a cosmic jester, God turned the world inside-out, which we endure upside-down. Good guys don’t always win. Nature unleashes floods as well as flaming sunrises. Water assuages thirst but also drowns innocent folk.
Here’s the real killer: Each of us is born to die.
Turning Life Inside-Out
God, by raising Christ from the dead, turned life inside-out. Hard to believe, isn’t it? When it happened, some curious about Christianity ditched it. They concluded that fools believed in God’s death-defying act, which harnessed chaos. The Apostle Paul refers to those who debunk Christ’s resurrection as nutty. “God’s foolishness is wiser than humankind’s, and His weakness stronger than ours” (I Corinthians 1:25).
How is God’s foolishness wiser and stronger? The late Manhattan preacher R. Maurice Boyd, in his “Joy in the Morning” Easter sermon, describes how we appropriate God’s grand reversal, turning life inside-out in an upside-down world. “ … Our troubles, distressing though they might be, are part of the gift of life which most of us, most of the time, believe to be good. We send birthday cards to our friends because we believe that the day they were born was a very good day indeed; and we are pleased when they send one to us,” declares Boyd.
“We may lament the human condition,” he admits, “but we continue to bring children into the world, with all its risks and hazards, because life is something to cherish, and we want to give it to those whom we shall love more than we love ourselves.”
When life feels empty, we fill voids with resilient acts and hopeful attitudes. A confident Easter faith helps us roll away negative boulders that bury us.
Compare Falstaff, the clown, to Christ, the jester. One is entombed in an upside-down world; the other dies and is resurrected from the grave.
Wit serves as Falstaff’s god. His jocular personality hones a sharp sardonic edge. Serious reflection lies beneath banter, however. Falstaff sounds like today’s comedians whose lives are racked by cruelty. Making people laugh covers their tears. Falstaff’s skeptical wit saves him from throwing in the towel. He laughs at doom in order to cope, but he can’t make it disappear.
We misinterpret Falstaff, claims literary critic Harold Bloom, when we debase him as “a cowardly braggart, a sly instigator to vice, a fawner for the Prince’s (Prince Hal) favor, besotted old scoundrel and much more of that sort of desecration of Shakespeare’s actual text.”
Bloom laments Falstaff’s demise. He’s frustrated because Shakespeare scratched him from the script. Falstaff dies. Finis. Humor can’t save him. His banter, however, helps us deal with our own absurdities. His verbal detours, carved from coarse jokes and daffy antics, help us reach our destinations.
Alas, Falstaff doesn’t have the last laugh over death. But God does — Easter declares. Rising from the dead is the ultimate jest God produces and Christ, the clown, performs.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.the livinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.