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By Craig Detweiler


Divine Comedy at the Cineplex

We all love movies that make us laugh, even in the worst of times—and from Annie Hall to Blazing Saddles to The Big Lebowski, there's good theology behind that.

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"The secret source of humor is not joy but sorrow."—Mark Twain>

My wife was recently diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma. What an unexpected punch-in-the-gut (or actually, the lymph nodes). At times like this, your throat tightens, your stomach contracts, you feel numb.

On the other hand, it should give me some great material. After all, I writes jokes for a living.

Perhaps laughter serves as the most logical response to a reality that we simply can't grasp, a reality that overpowers us. Comedy is the best medicine, helping us cope with life's hardest lessons.

Laughing at the human condition

Ten classic comedies were screened at the recent City of the Angels Film Festival. A broad coalition including Fuller Seminary, InterVarsity, and Catholics in Media offer this annual event as a gift to the city, a celebration of theology and film.

The festival has been distinguished by its timely themes, from 2001's "Touches of Evil" following the events of 9/11, to 2004's "Reel Myths," which highlighted the re-enchantment of fantasy films. So what does the festival's most recent theme, "Divine Comedy: Spirited Laughter," suggest about our circumstances?

Festival producer Michael Smith noted, "Comedy at its best stares the human condition straight in the face but comes out smiling and sometimes laughing, at the most gravely serious situations."

Fittingly, the festival opened with a double feature of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup and Woody Allen's Annie Hall. I was struck by the Jewish origins of so many classic comedies. The earthy, boisterous Hebrew storytelling tradition offers a sharp contrast to our often disembodied, Greek-influenced Christian faith.

Hearty laughter arose from the broad satire of Mel Brooks' Blazing Saddles to the Coen Brothers' neo-noir, The Big Lebowski. These films reveal the savage, anarchic spirits lurking beneath our veneer of respectability. Yet, with the exception of Woody Allen's God-haunted work, most Jewish screen comedy avoids overt theological commentary. Has a century of suffering rendered notions of God irrelevant? Or should the laughter provided by these comedians be accepted as a gift in the face of profound angst?

Finding hope amidst hopelessness

The wisdom literature of the Bible also teeters on the edge of depression. It provides an alternative take on the promises of Scripture, offering a heavy dose of reality.

Some read Ecclesiastes as a descent into despair. But Woody Allen's desperate comedy can help us uncover the hope found in Ecclesiastes. When Allen quips, "To you I'm an atheist; to God, I'm the loyal opposition," he stakes out the same territory as the weary Qoholet. Just as Woody finds satisfaction in the quirky charms of Annie Hall, so Qoholet challenges his readers to enjoy their meals, to embrace their mates, to hug their families.   Wisdom lit encourages us to embrace life's everyday pleasures.     

The Book of Job can be read as a comedy of overstatement, where everything that can possibly go wrong, does. The false comfort of Job's friends seems quaint compared to the help offered by Nurse Ratchet in One Flew over theCuckoo's Nest. Given ample reasons to curse God and die, McMurphy (Jack Nicholson) soldiers on, rallying his fellow crazies for a game of basketball. Meanwhile, Guido (Roberto Benigni) finds hope amidst the Holocaust in the fable, Life Is Beautiful.

Both films celebrate humanity's ability to press on amidst the most soul-draining situations. They are comedies of defiance, of people willing to mock the powers that be.  Their heroes tend toward madness, revealing the thin lines that separate comedy and tragedy, wisdom and foolishness. McMurphy and Guido head toward sacrificial deaths, undaunted by Job-like suffering. Comedy suggests our ability to transcend grim circumstances, even as it reveals our shortcomings, our fallenness.

Comedy's theological possibilities

The City of the Angels Fest teases out film's theological possibilities during post-screening panelists' conversations. Seasoned Hollywood writer Ron Austin, discussing Buster Keaton's The General (1927), noted how American film comedy arose from the void created by World War I. While the war severed Europeans' comedic traditions (resulting in Dada art), Americans refined their comedic instincts from slapstick to screwball comedy.

Austin lamented the loss of physical comedy, a training forged onstage, before live theatre audiences. "Physical comedy," says Austin, "begins with the recognition that we're not in control of the world. It acknowledges the perpetual embarrassment of the body, but affirms the physicalness of the Incarnation—the goodness of our being in the face of an absurd world where animals bite, buildings fall, and cars wreck."

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