The function of comedy

From Leland Ryken’s chapter, “Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and the Comic Spirit in Literature,” in Realms of Gold: The Classics in Christian Perspective:

Aristotle made a provocative comment about the common subject matter of tragedy and comedy when he said that they both deal with “some defect or ugliness.” The Greek word that Aristotle uses is hamartia—literally a missing of the mark in archery and and the famous “character flaw” of tragedy. In comedy this defect “is not painful or destructive,” while in tragedy it is. Both tragedy and comedy reconcile us to common human failing. But tragedy makes us fear it, while comedy makes us comfortable with it. Paradoxically, notes Bernard Schilling, “in tragedy man seems great after all, in comedy he seems small after all.”

It is not easy to say why the spectacle of human defect strikes us as funny in comedy. The same experiences in real life are painful. It is obvious that the angle of vision is part of the explanation. In comedy we ourselves must feel superior to the comic victim before we laugh at his or her misfortune. 

Comedy reduces people to the common lot of the human race and declares it good. A book on the comic entitled A Divine Average argues that comedy not only endorses the average but idealizes it. Comedy levels us all into a community of ordinary people. In comedy we judge the human condition as limited and flawed, but we are reconciled to it and accept our place in it.

A book entitled Why Literature Is Bad For You observes that “the most renowned stories of the Western World are frequently built around a central bungler whose incompetence has the effect of injuring a good many around him” and then draws the conclusion that literature makes us tolerant of competence. I would suggest an alternative conclusion: reading stories about human failing can serve the beneficial purpose of helping us cope with a “given” of our own experiences in a fallen world, namely, human failure

Who is the Great Whore of Babylon?


William Blake, “The Whore of Babylon” (1809)

Anglican theologian Joseph Mangina answers the question in his commentary on the seventeenth and eighteenth chapters in the Book of Revelation:

William Blake brilliantly captures the dynamics of this scene in his 1809 pen and watercolor sketch The Whore of Babylon (British Museum), which shows the beast as having “seven ugly human heads; the plump whore, stripped to the waist rides him side-saddle holding her golden cup out of which fly personified ‘abominations and filthiness and fornications.’ ” Blake insightfully portrays the scene as a mixture of love and death. Thus one of the beast’s heads looks back up at the whore, with a leering expression on its face, while another is busy devouring human figures on the earth below. Most striking of all is just how wretched and miserable the whore seems. She is clearly unhappy, trapped along with the beast in a covenant of death. While it would be impossible to call her innocent, it is clear in Blake’s portrayal—as in John’s own—that she is not just an agent of evil but also its victim. The vision brilliantly depicts the self-consuming, self-destroying power of evil, which lacks the gift of affirmation (both of God and of self) that is built into the fabric of the created order and especially into the life of spiritual beings. 


Who is the whore? John tells us that she is seated on “many waters,” a convention for speaking of Babylon-on-the-Euphrates, but which might also be taken as referring to any seagoing power. She has clients who are politically and militarily powerful. She is gaudy and rich. She is drunk with the blood of martyrs and saints. All the signs point to the whore’s being Rome, the murderess responsible for the deaths of the apostles Peter and Paul and more recently for the martyrdom of Antipas of Pergamum. In John’s time, there was simply no other “great city” on a par with Rome’s scale and ambition. This judgment seems to be confirmed by many voices in the ancient church. No less than St. Augustine called Rome “the second Babylonia, as it were, the Babylonia of the West.” 

Nevertheless, the Great Whore of Babylon is more than just Rome, as the beast is more than just the military power that allowed her to extend her reach across the Mediterranean. Any such simple, empirical identification would be guilty of what William Blake famously called “single vision.” It would mean reading an apocalyptic work in a most unapocalyptic way—that is, unimaginatively. Blake’s own watercolor of the beast and the whore points to realities of his own time—the beast to be understood as scientific materialism, perhaps, and the whore as the modern spirit of capitalism—even as it gestures toward something more universal. 

So it was, too, for Augustine, who identified “the great city” with Rome and with the earthly city as such, which is constructed not just of bricks and mortar but of imagination and desire. There is no question but that Babylon is a figure of desire, longing, eros. She is beautiful, yet fallen; powerful, but exploited; strong, but with the kind of strength that seeks to control and dominate— “the great city that has dominion over the kings of the earth.” To use Pauline language, we might see the whore as a kind of Adamic figure, a representation of fallen humanity driven by desire gone wrong: “We see then that the two cities were created by two kinds of love: the earthly city was created by self-love reaching the point of contempt for God, the Heavenly City by the love of God . . . . The earthly city glories in itself, the Heavenly City glories in the Lord” (City of God). 


In Western theology, it was above all St. Augustine who taught us that the human being is essentially constituted by desire (eros). Passion in the negative sense (epithymia) is nothing else but disordered desire, a longing that fails to acknowledge God as what the heart yearns for: “Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.” At the same time, desire is never simply an individual phenomenon. Far from being simple and self-validating, desire is to be seen as “a social product . . . a complex and multidimensional network of movement that does not simply originate within the individual self but pulls and pushes the self in different directions from both inside and outside the person.” What the Apocalypse reveals to us is (a) that not just the human soul, but the human city is constructed by desire—Babylon is a cooperative endeavor—and (b) that this endeavor has become hopelessly corrupted by sin. The city is the glory of humans as political animals—that is God’s purpose for it. The city is a whore riding on the back of a pimp, a seven-headed monster who will soon devour the whole world, consuming the whore in the process—that is the eschatological reality on the verge of overtaking John and his hearers. Whatever the city might be in the divine intention, now in these last days it has become violent and exploitative, ugly and deformed, an appropriately haglike consort for its master the beast. God’s people have no choice but to “come out of her.” 

The question once again poses itself, what is the referent of such language? Is Babylon what John thought it was in the first century, or does the image expand to encompass other realities that the church has had to struggle with across its history? Even if it could be shown that John believed the empire to be the apocalyptic whore, this would not fix the meaning of the image once for all. The whore is a character from the end of the story whom we encounter in the middle of the story. If the church lives out of Christ’s victory, it lives in the midst of the great city and all it entails. Just what it means to say this cannot be neatly determined in advance, since history (rather inconveniently) has to be lived before it can be narrated. What the Apocalypse does is not to narrate history in advance, but to describe the pattern of suffering, tribulation, and oppression that is intrinsic to the church’s historical existence. The church, we might say, is on a pilgrimage through time, in the course of which it encounters Babylon again and again, always in different forms and guises. The Babylon of imperial Rome will be different from the Babylon that Blake imagined in industrial England, which will be different yet again from the Babylon of late modern capitalism, where goods and services are traded electronically and at the speed of light, but where “human souls” are still being traded. The appearance of the figure of Babylon in history is not uniform, nor is every human society or economic system equally deserving of the name. What it means, then, for the church to flee Babylon for the wilderness will also differ in particular concrete situations. Discerning the shape of this pilgrimage is among the chief tasks of theological ethics. 

To use simpler and more traditional language, “Babylon” names the world (ho kosmos) in the negative New Testament sense. The church cannot avoid living in the world, but it may not itself be “worldly.” While the worldly church is a contradiction in terms, this possibility has unfortunately been realized all too often in Christian history. In extreme cases the church may be charged with actually having become Babylon, the spotless bride who has traded in her finery for the tawdry dress of the whore. This trope is biblically far more appropriate than the one that calls the church or its minsters “antichrist.” In the Old Testament, Jerusalem or Daughter Zion can also be castigated as a harlot, and the harlot/bride contrast is implied by Revelation itself. If Israel can be unfaithful to God, so can the church . . . . 

We expect the world to be Babylon; that goes with its being the earthly city. But for the church to be so corrupted is an unspeakable evil. It means that the lust for worldly power and influence has replaced fidelity to Christ. Like the whore in our present passage, the church as Babylon consorts freely with “the kings of the earth,” in such a way that it is no longer fighting in the Lamb’s army; indeed, it has gone over to the enemy. What it means to “come out of Babylon” in such a situation is obviously highly problematic. Suffice it to say that, prior to the sixteenth century, the trope was not used to justify the separation from the church, but as an impetus to repentance, reform, and renewal. The church is our mother, even when it looks like Babylon. Hans Urs von Balthasar thus reminds us that the church in Christian tradition was often viewed as castra meretrix (“chaste harlot”), a people beloved by God despite its manifest faults. 

Bonhoeffer’s “Prayerbook of the Bible”

A close friend and I have completed reading Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Prayerbook of the Bible (1940). Here are my take-aways and questions.

3 Take-Aways

  1. God hears us “not in the false and confused language of our heart but in the clear and pure language that God has spoken to us in Jesus Christ” (from “The Introduction”).
  2. “All the prayers of the Holy Scriptures are summed up in the Lord’s Prayer and are taken up into its immeasurable breath” (from “The Introduction”).
  3. “The same words David spoke, therefore, the future Messiah spoke in him. Christ prayed along with the prayers of David or, more accurately, it is none other than Christ who prayed them in Christ’s own forerunner, David” (from “Those Who Pray the Psalms”).

5 Questions

  1. What impact does a Christocentric theology of prayer have on the Trinity? “Only in and through Jesus Christ can we truly pray” (from “The Introduction”).
  2. “Whoever has begun to pray the Psalter earnestly and regularly will ‘soon take leave’ of those other light and personal ‘little devotional prayers and say: ‘Ah, there is not the juice, the strength, the passion, the fire which I find in the Psalter. Anything else tastes too cold and too hard’ (Luther)” (from “The Worship Service and the Psalms”). Should I only pray the words of the Psalter and the Lord’s Prayer?
  3. “Jesus Christ himself has offered the perfect worship service, in that he fulfilled all the ordained sacrifices in his own voluntary, sinless sacrifice. In his own person Christ offered God’s sacrifice for us and our sacrifice for God. For us there remains only the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in prayers, songs, and in a life lived according to God’s commands (Ps. 15, Ps. 50). So our entire life becomes the worship service, the thank-offering. God wishes to acknowledge such a thank-offering and to show salvation to those who are thankful (Ps. 50:23). These psalms wish to teach us to become thankful to God for the sake of Christ and to praise him in the congregation with heart, mouth, and hands” (from “The Church”). How do I cultivate a life that becomes the worship service? 
  4. “Even in the deepest helplessness, God alone remains the one addressed. Help is neither expected from other people, nor does the sufferer in self-pity lose sight of God, the origin and goal of all affliction. The one who suffers sets out to battle against God for God. God’s promise, God’s previous redemptive deeds, the honor of God’s name among all people, are again and again held up before the wrathful God” (from “Suffering”). How do I battle against God for God without blasphemy?
  5. “If I am guilty, why does God not forgive me? If I am not guilty, why does God not end my torment and demonstrate my innocence to my enemies (Pss. 38, 79, 44)? There is no theoretical answer to all these questions in the Psalms any more than in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ. But this answer is already being sought in the Psalms. It is common to all of them that they cast every difficulty and tribulation upon God: ‘We can no longer bear them, take them away from us and bear them yourself, for you alone can handle suffering.’ That is the goal of all the psalms of lament. They pray about the one who took upon himself our sickness and bore our infirmities, Jesus Christ. They proclaim Jesus Christ as the only help in suffering, for in Christ is God with us.” Should projects of theodicy be abandoned, referred instead to the work of Jesus Christ?  

Poetry and pain

What do a poet and a theologian have to say about being diagnosed with incurable cancer in the prime of life? Listen to the conversation between American poet Christian Wiman, author of My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer, and Reformed theologian J. Todd Billings, author of Rejoicing in Lament: Wrestling with Incurable Cancer & Life in Christ


God’s vengeance

In Prayerbook of the Bible (1940), Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

God’s vengeance did not fall on the sinners, but on the only sinless one, the Son of God, who stood in the place of sinners. Jesus Christ bore the vengeance of God, which the psalm asks to be carried out. Christ calmed God’s anger against sin and prayed in the hour of the carrying out of the divine judgment: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know they are doing!” No one other than he, who himself bore the wrath of God, could pray like this. That was the end of all false thoughts about the love of a God who does not take sin very seriously. God hates and judges the enemies of God in the only righteous one, the one who prays for forgiveness for God’s enemies. Only in the cross of Jesus Christ is the love of God to be found. 

So the psalms of vengeance leads to the cross of Jesus and to the love of God that forgives enemies. I cannot forgive the enemies of God by myself, only the crucified Christ can; and I can forgive through him. So the carrying out of vengeance becomes grace for all in Jesus Christ.

Battling against God for God

In Prayerbook of the Bible (1940), Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:

The Psalter has rich instruction for us about how to come before God in a proper way in the various sufferings that the world brings upon us. The Psalms know it all: serious illness, deep isolation from God and humanity, threats, persecutions, imprisonment, and whatever conceivable peril there is on earth (13, 21, 35, 41, 44, 54, 55, 56, 61, 74, 79, 86, 88, 102, 105, and others). They do not deny it, they do not deceive themselves with pious words about it, they allow it to stand as a severe ordeal of faith, indeed at times they no longer see beyond the suffering (Ps. 88), but they complain about it all to God. No single human being can pray the psalms of lamentation out of his or her own experience. Spread out before us here is the anguish of the entire Christian community throughout all time, as Jesus Christ alone has wholly experienced it. Because it happens with God’s will, indeed because God alone knows it completely and better than we ourselves, therefore only God can help. But then, all our questions must also again and again storm directly against God. 

There is in the Psalms no quick and easy surrender to suffering. It always comes through struggle, anxiety, and doubt. Our confidence in God’s righteousness and, indeed, in God’s good and gracious will, is shaken, for it allows the pious to suffer misfortune but the godless to escape free (Pss. 44, 35). God’s ways are too difficult to grasp. But even in the deepest hopelessness, God alone remains the one addressed. Help is neither expected from other people, nor does the sufferer in self-pity lose sight of God, the origin and goal of all affliction. The one who suffers sets out to battle against God for God. God’s promise, God’s previous redemptive deeds, the honor of God’s name among all people, are again and again held up before the wrathful God. 

Jesus offers the perfect worship service

In Prayerbook of the Bible (1940), Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer emphasizes what I sometimes forget: worship is sacrifice. Since no human, in his sinful condition, can offer a perfect sacrifice, only God can appease God—through the “voluntary, sinless sacrifice” of his Son. The modest and imperfect sacrifices that I bring to church are acceptable only because of what Jesus Christ did for me.

God has promised to be present in the worship service of the congregation. So the congregation conducts its worship service according to God’s order. But Jesus Christ himself has offered the perfect worship service, in that he fulfilled all the ordained sacrifices in his own voluntary, sinless sacrifice. In his own person Christ offered God’s sacrifice for us and our sacrifice for God. For us there remains only the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in prayers, songs, and in a life lived according to God’s commands (Ps. 15, Ps. 50). So our entire life becomes the worship service, the thank-offering. God wishes to acknowledge such a thank-offering and to show salvation to those who are thankful (Ps. 50:23). These psalms wish to teach us to become thankful to God for the sake of Christ and to praise him in the congregation with heart, mouth, and hands.