In the semiotician Umberto Eco’s unlikely 1980 best-seller The Name of the Rose a medieval Franciscan monk investigating a series of murders at an Italian monastery discovers that the victims have been targeted by the abbot for reading a forbidden book – the only copy of an apocryphal work on comedy by Aristotle. The abbot reasons that if such a distinguished thinker whose work is the very basis for scholasticism was known to have argued that comedy was the equal of drama, then the power of religious authorities such as himself would be questioned, for humor can be used as a tool for not just challenging hierarchy, but for enduring one’s own life without the teachings of hierarchy as well.
William of Baskerville, the fourteenth-century protagonist of Eco’s novel, does not agree with the abbot. He believes that simply because Christ is not depicted as laughing in the gospels does not mean that he didn’t in life. For Baskerville humor and spirituality are inseparable, it is precisely the radical, upending, disruptive nature of joyful comedy that allows for evil and sin to be resisted. It’s worth considering what exactly the relationship is between Christianity and comedy, especially since the popular stereotype (among the secular, but sometimes among the pious as well) sees these two categories as somehow being antithetical. And yet a great tradition exists within Christianity of being a “fool for Christ.”
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Stephen Colbert, formerly of the brilliant Colbert Report which satirically skewered right-wing blowhards like Bill O’Reilly and now David Letterman’s replacement on The Late Show is a devout Roman Catholic. He has made no secret of his faith (in fact the comedian once taught catechism class), but for some viewers confused about how to separate Colbert from his performance the intensity of the host’s religion can seem disorienting. And yet Colbert himself sees absolutely no conflict between his humor and his faith. In an interview with Colbert posted on September 9th, Father Thomas Rosica of the Canadian based and Vatican-affiliated Salt and Light Television asked what one question would be that he would ask Pope Francis. The performer replied “I would ask him about being a fool for Christ… to be a fool for Christ is to love, because we are made, we are here to dig our brief moment in time.” A “fool for Christ” – it’s a seemingly counter-intuitive concept, but one that is threaded throughout orthodoxy.
So what exactly is a “fool for Christ?” It’s a concept with deep roots in both Catholic and Orthodox traditions (the later celebrating many yurodivy as saints), and indeed more generally the religious strength of “foolishness” is one that is celebrated in thought as varied as the folk-tales of Hasidic Judaism to the “crazy-wisdom” of Zen Buddhist koans. It’s important to remember that “foolishness” can’t be reduced or limited to comedy, and that a “fool for Christ” need not be seen as being a theological form of its secular counterpart the “jester.” And yet there are certain similarities, ones that Colbert would be correct to identify as potentially properties of the engaged comedian who despite anarchic sensibilities takes the divine very seriously. The fool for Christ is one who is shocking, or flouts conventional social mores, whether that means casting off all possessions (including clothes), living unconventionally, or purposefully making your fervency by seeming mad or stupid, and yes, in some cases being funny. It is Paul in Corinthians who first uses the term, and indeed it is a concept that demonstrates the profound anti-establishment, subversive, “world turned upside down” nature of Christianity, even if that very radicalness sometimes seems unpalatable to the conventionally and normatively faithful. The holy fool is like the court jester who is able to speak the truth because of his ridiculousness, like Lear’s clown in the howling wilderness – but the holy fool works not for a mere king, but for God.
Erasmus of Rotterdam’s classic humanist work In Praise of Folly celebrates the potential of the holy fool. Written in 1511 England while Erasmus was on his friend Thomas More’s estate, the text is an ironic encomium where the character Folly, personified as a woman, praises herself, and claims that “all Christian religion seems to have a kind of alliance with folly and in no respect to have any accord with wisdom.” It might seem blasphemous, the Church placed Erasmus’ works on the Index of Forbidden Books, but it is paralleled by Colbert who in his interview said “Logic itself will not lead me to God. But my love of the world and my gratitude toward it will. So hopefully I can use my mind to make my jokes and not deny my love for God at the same time.” The holy fool embodies divinity because in their descent they help to elevate. As Erasmus explains “And Christ himself… became a fool when taking upon him the nature of man… he was made sin that he might heal sinners.”
Stephen Colbert is good for American Catholicism and he is good for America. For many secular Americans, many of whom are former Catholics, the face of the American Church has too often been the unsmiling visage of Bill Donahue of the Catholic League. Taking offense at everything, picketing, petitioning and seemingly always enraged about any difference in opinion or the appearance of mere irreverence. Colbert on the other hand is irreverence incarnate, first in his performance as a blowhard newscaster on Comedy Central and now on CBS’ The Late Show. And despite his “foolishness” his Catholic bona fides are not to be doubted (check out the Catholic trivia competition between him and rock virtuoso/former altar boy Jack White). But it is this “foolishness” that makes him such a potent voice. His interview last week with Vice-President Joe Biden which touched on faith and grief demonstrates the unique genius of Colbert at being able to discuss religion through comedy. Sergey Ivanov of the Russian Academy of Sciences claims that a “holy fool” is one who “feigns insanity, pretends to be silly, or who provokes shock or outrage by his deliberate unruliness.” Is this not a description of the political jester who was “Stephen Colbert” for the last decade? As the “real” Stephen Colbert starts The Late Show, might we hope that late night television may develop its own theological jester in him, a type of national holy fool?
Ed Simon is a Ph.D. candidate in the English department of Lehigh University. His research focuses on religion and literature in the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Atlantic world. He has been previously published inSalon,Quartz,The Revealer, theJournal of the Northern Renaissance, and thePublic Domain Reviewamong others. Currently he is the assistant editor of theJournal of Heresy Studies, and one of the founding members of the International Society for Heresy Studies. He can be followed on Twitter @WithEdSimon.