Laughter: When Ages Collide

08054301991.jpgThis post will eventually consider laughter as a result of a collision between The Present Evil Age and The Age to Come, Here Already, But Not Yet. But first, how this post originated…

If coincidences are, indeed, a way through which God speaks to us, then, it seems, once a coincidence occurs, one thing just inevitably leads to another. This thought surfaced when I received an email from Terry Lindvall, who reported that he has just finished a study of silent American film in which the prevailing metaphor was also The Cinema of the Brazen Serpent, Sanctuary Cinema. Origins of the Christian Film Industry (NYU Press, 2007)! Certainly a man of great erudition.  Here it is:

“I derive my use of the analogical concept of the brazen serpent from the peculiar biblical narrative in Numbers (21:41) regarding the death of some of the children of Israel in the wilderness…. Among all the voiceless creatures and idols on the outskirts of Hollywood, the brazen serpent still slithers about silently, and its former skins arc fascinating, at least to those who like to examine the transformations of these theatrical images within histories of the church and film. For the brazen serpent would shed its skin again and again, continuing to nest within the imaginations of churchmen and women, sometimes bringing poison, sometimes bringing healing, but always challenging those who would keep the company of snake handlers.” (16, 223)

Sanctuary Cinema. Origins of the Christian Film Industry is an important book, “illuminating the earliest years of Protestant filmmaking – the era of silent film.” Professor Lindvall writes very well, too. His purpose is to “demonstrate how Protestant  churches partnered with the new technology of moving pictures to achieve their mission of attracting new audiences, of instructing and entertaining their congregations, and of exploiting non-theatrical films to serve the Kingdom of God and their parishes.”

I recommend this book to you if you are serious about understanding the origins of Christian filmmaking in America.

But no sooner had I finished this book, than I was led to Professor Lindvall’s earlier work, The Silents of God. Selected Issues and Documents in Silent American Film and Religion (Scarecrow, 2001). In this book, Professor Lindvall has written compelling introductions to a collection of important early documents “that reveal the various forms of accommodation, resistance, and negotiation occurring reciprocally between silent film and religion.” The reader quickly discovers the truth of Goethe’s old adage – everything has already been said, but since no one listens, you have to say it all over again. One hundred years ago the issues now being raised among Christians regarding film were thoroughly examined. Nevertheless, Herbert A. Jumps’ “The Religious Possibilities of the Motion Picture.” (New Britain, CT: South Congregational Church Private Distribution, 1911) is alone worth the time to find this book.

The pun in the title of Professor Lindvall’s book does not begin to alert one to  this man’s tremendous sense of humor. But it did lead me to yet another of his books, The Mother of All Laughter. Sarah and the Genesis of Comedy (Broadman and Holman, 2003). This book is a very funny and profoundly wise and moving account of Genesis 17, structured around the key verses:

 •”So Sarah Laughed to Herself.” (Gen. 18:12)
 •”Why Did Sarah Laugh?” (Gen. 18:13)
 •”I Did Not Laugh.” (Gen. 18:15)
 •”You Will Call Him Isaac,” (Gen. 17:19)
 •”Everyone Who Hears about This Will Laugh with Me.” (Gen. 21:6)

Professor Lindvall traces how laughter begins “in a setting ripe with predicaments and dialogue – the story of Abraham and Sarah and the seemingly unlikely birth of their son, Isaac”, whose name means “Laughter.” The laughter of joy is considered from its origins in the miraculous product of the embrace of a dying, but faithful, couple, to their ancestor Jesus’ declaration – “Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world,” as an essential  characteristic of the Kingdom of God. Along the way the professor tells some wonderfully amusing tales, and makes some statements which resonate deep within:

 •“In God’s economy blessed are those who weep, for they shall be comforted. They shall laugh. From one old man, through his one son called Laughter, God promised to bless many nations—and he did, for all eternity. Out of death has come life and laughter.”

 •”’Abraham, name your son Isaac. Then be prepared to sacrifice your laughter.’” Laughter does not last in this life. Like its namesake, laughter cannot be hoarded and saved. God orders you to take it to the mountain, lay it on the altar, and kill the laughter in the presence of God. Be ready in faith to give it all up—for in the end you shall laugh again.”

 •“God makes laughter. God expands and spreads laughter. He makes sacred places a habitat for hilarity. In marriages, families, churches, neighborhoods, and schools his people gather to celebrate his coming in joy and laughter.”

 •“Sarah’s tears and laughter were a prelude to Mary’s sorrow and song. The near sacrifice of Sarah’s son was completed by the full sacrifice of Mary’s son. Mary is the daughter of Sarah’s faith. And the laughter of Sarah that was offered to all people culminated in the Magnificat of Mary in lifting up all the poor and needy. This song of laughter invited everyone to the wedding, to the feast, into the community of God—who loves, forgives, restores, heals, and blesses.”


Incongruity is the reason for laughter, according to the professor. I liked his reasoning, because that is what I concluded in Fundamental Acting (Applause Theater Arts Books, 1998):

 •“Incongruity involves two perspectives, two lines of probability. The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer (1788-1860) noted that “the cause of laughter in every case is simply the sudden perception of the incongruity between a concept and the real objects which have been thought through it in some relation. Humor, laughter, and comedy arise from either the juxtaposition of two different perspectives or the collision of two distinct lines of probability. “Why did the moron take a yardstick to bed? To see how long he slept.” One perspective or probability—yardsticks measure length of space — collides with another— the word “length” can mean either space or time. The moron is laughable because he is unaware of the existence of an alternative perspective to the one he has regarding “length.” As Samuel Kahn (1897-1981) noted, “the comic character lacks insight and is ignorant of himself. The comic character is invisible to himself but visible to all the world. Such stupidity is quite laughable.
 “Comic characters seem to live in what quantum physicists would call a “parallel universe” which, when it collides with either that of the audience or of another character, produces laughter. In the right hemisphere of the observer’s brain two divergent meanings are simultaneously and rapidly presented. When the brain resolves the incongruous lines, the gestalt is reordered; in other words, the observer’s conceptual framework is reorganized to allow for the new, previously incongruous, information. This happens when an audience laughs.” (93)

As Christians, we live in the dynamic tension between the two parallel, overlapping and incongruous ages – The Present Evil Age, drawn to the Enemy’s perspective, and the Age to Come, drawn from God’s perspective. When one or the other suddenly breaks into the other, the result can be laughter – of joy when the Kingdom of God breaks into the evil, or nervous laughter when the Present Evil Age unexpectedly invades our peace. Joyous laughter is, as Professor Lindvall notes, “simply a gift of God’s grace established in creation.” As He blesses us we can laugh; as we expand His Kingdom, we can see unexpected acts of kindness met with smiles and surprised laughter.

For Christians know we are comic characters in God’s play. We know our end, and it is restoration, healing, and joy in the New Jerusalem. The residue of the tragedies of the Present Evil Age will be gone.The Serpent who had bitten our heels bloody as we journeyed with our Lord through the Evil Age, has had his head crushed, and everyone experiences what Peter Leithart, in Deep Comedy. Trinity, Tragedy, and Hope in Western Literatrure (Canon Press, 2007) calls “Deep Comedy”:

 “Deep comedy” brings two additional nuances: First, in deep comedy the happy ending is uncontaminated by any fear of future tragedy, and, second, in deep comedy the characters do not simply end as well as they began, but progress beyond their beginning. Comedy may move from glory to glory restored, but deep comedy moves from glory to added glory…“Deep comedy” is best exemplified by the vision of the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21–22, and particularly by Revelation 21:4: “He shall wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there shall no longer be death; there shall no longer be mourning, or crying,or pain; the first things have passed away.”

When Worlds Collide is more than  a science fiction title. It is our shared experience of laughter as pilgrims following Jesus toward the Promised Land.

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