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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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He went on to trace the roots of comedy back to Plato: "We laugh because of the gap between the real and the ideal, between ourselves and God, especially when we take ourselves too seriously."

Perhaps the most overt biblical allusions arose in Preston Sturges' screwball comedy, The Lady Eve (1941). The film begins in the Garden, with an animated sequence featuring a serpent and an apple. Henry Fonda plays a rich beer magnate—named "Hopsie," no less!—who literally falls for a con artist played with comic aplomb by Barbara Stanwyck. The film skewers the pretensions of the upper class, but it places blame on both sides of the perpetual battle of the sexes.

In the post-screening discussion, Pepperdine University Provost Daryl Tippens noted the theme of falling and its connection to the medieval notion of felix culpa—the fortunate, or in the film's case, "happy" fall. Monica Ganas of Azusa Pacific University added, "Everyone has reasons to repent; the flattening of social class demonstrates we're all in the same boat before God. Comic relief comes because we know we're in trouble. Once we realize we (and the characters) are off the hook, that is grace."

Humor's time and cultural constraints

Mark Twain said, "Humor must not professedly teach, and it must not professedly preach, but it must do both if it would live forever."

Humor doesn't always travel or age well, and American films that dominated the festival slate, revealing comedy's cultural constraints, underscored that fact. While the Marx Brothers' commentary on the madness of war still applies, the sexism and racism found in Duck Soup invoked winces amidst the guffaws. Blazing Saddles' riff on racism in the Old West played as outrageous in 1974, but seemed passé; thirty years later.

Satire's sting can be bound by its era. It can cross into cruelty or obscurity, depending upon the subject critiqued. Ron Austin suggested, "The great comedians make us laugh with compassion, not ridicule. They laugh at their own pretensions—the gap between who we pretend to be and who we are."

Comedy is a weapon that must be wielded with precision and care. It works better as a mirror than a spotlight. As festival director Scott Young put it, "Funny flicks open up space for spirited laughter to do its radical makeovers on unsuspecting human species."

Absurdist ethos captures the day

The largest festival crowds gathered for the two most recent films—1998's The Big Lebowski and Rushmore—whose absurdist ethos captures the chaotic spirit of our age. Fans who discovered these films on DVD were eager to laugh with an audience. The communal nature of the moviegoing experience enhances comedies.

The aha! moment of Rushmore begins in a mandatory chapel. While most of the students at his private boys school sleeps through a sermon, Max Fischer finds a mentor (and eventually a rival). Rushmore descends into the pettiest of fights for the affectations of a woman.

Annie Hall, The Lady Eve, and Rushmore all chronicle the folly of searching for the ideal woman. Only after failing in their foolish quest for perfection do the men realize that the best woman was right in front of them. As in Dante's Divine Comedy, a beatific vision fuels their descent (ascent!?) through personal infernos and purgatorios. Again, comedy can reveal our blindness, launching us toward a journey that can only be satisfied in the paradiso.

The Big Lebowski's rabid cult following continues to grow, despite (or because of) the Dude's apparent disinterest. The Dude (Jeff Bridges) keeps the hallucinatory spirit of the Sixties alive. Yet, the Coen Brothers' send-up of slackers, performance artists, and bowlers named Jesus came closest to suggesting the salvific aspects of comedy. The film offers a basic creed ("The Dude abides") and comfort ("It's good knowin' he's out there. The Dude. Takin' 'er easy for all us sinners"). He plays the fool, but reveals a method to his madness. Fueled by a steady diet of White Russians, The Dude and his posse take down nihilists, pederasts, and pornographers. Is the foolishness of the Dude a nod to Shakespeare's "wise fool"?

Seeking proper foolishness

Is it good to be a fool? Proverbs doesn't recommend it. Yet, Paul writes that "God chose the foolish things to confound the wise" (1 Cor. 1:27). So, what is the kind of foolishness that God encourages? 

The great Japanese author, Shusaku Endo, portrayed Jesus as a Wonderful Fool. Georges Roault painted Christ as a clown. Dostoevsky respectfully declared him The Idiot."Jesus told silly stories, about camels passing through needles and people crawling back into their mother's womb—to be born again.

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